The constant discourse about how careful we have to be all the time during the COVID era is probably counterproductive at this time. For people who are going to be careful, they already are careful. If at this point, you aren’t going to be careful, nothing is going to change that now.
Recently at a Dunkin’ Donuts, I waited for a bagel next to a woman who wasn’t wearing a mask. At least one other maskless person came into the store while I was there. In Florida, where I was for the month, I had become used to doing these scans of the room, especially since the local mask mandate was lifted at the end of February. I would count how many people had masks below their noses, how many had no mask at all, how many had a mask made of mesh (just one total, luckily).
It made me feel something that I’ve been feeling for a while, as a journalist who has been tasked with interpreting and explaining so many things about the pandemic to my readers: The wrong people are heeding the calls for more caution. Advertisement
I have spent a lot of time urging caution this year, based on the advice of public health experts who are also urging caution. “You should take precautions that might feel a bit outlandish,” I wrote a year ago, now, in a piece titled “Don’t Panic About the Coronavirus. Act.” Over the course of the year, those precautions have gone from working from home to choosing the right personal protective equipment to still being careful about traveling even if you’ve gotten the vaccine. Over these sad, hard months, I’ve watched so many people give up so much in the interest of everyone’s safety. I’ve watched friends stay isolated from everyone except members of their own household, even when there are ways to mitigate risks in exchange for a little more sanity. I have heard horror stories about parenting with a lack of in-person school, even as evidence suggests that schools might safely be reopened.
And I have come to suspect that some percentage of the population is adhering so intensely to the public health advice that they are about 90 percent of the way toward perfection—and they’re putting themselves through a ton of stress to get that last 10 percent. On the other hand, another set of the population is … doing quite a bit less, and not really worrying over the parts they aren’t doing. These are the people who would benefit from doing a little (or much) more, and they’re also the ones that don’t seem to be listening. Instead, they’re having weddings, jet-setting, burning masks. I could not imagine, for example, what the lady at the Florida Dunkin’ Donuts would think about my very earnest explainer on how and why to wear two masks. I did not ask—talking produces aerosols!—but I am confident she is not a reader.
At this point in the pandemic—and for a long time during this pandemic, honestly—it seems like some portion of the country is going full-force against public health guidance and another portion is staying very, very cautious, even at the cost of a lot of energy and mental health. I don’t mean to suggest that everyone is either gathering for spitting contests in basements or else hermetically sealed in their living rooms. Many, many people have to go to in-person jobs, for example, even though they would rather not. I know plenty of people who are fumbling their way through some kind of middle ground, taking considered risks: outdoor drinks, masked visits with family, trips for semi-essential purposes buffered by strategic quarantine periods, occasional mistakes, recommitments to doing something different next time. And yet, so many people I talk to are living at 90 percent while stressing over that last 10 percent.
For a lot of people, that last 10 percent is simply not worth the mental health hit, especially at this point in this time. In the end, we are humans who have to live. I understand that the last year has been Introvert Paradise and we are already starting to see quarantine nostalgia from some quarters. We’ve had a good number of cases on campus recently and students are openly saying that they are partying with their friends because they need it for the mental health. Can I really blame them? Not really. People talk about the long-term health consequences of COVID. That could be real. We definitely know though that for some people there will be long-term mental costs from the quarantine. That is also a serious public health crisis.
We’re almost through with this horror. I’m not going to yell at people for not being 100% careful. We need to be as cautious as reasonably possible. But reasonable does not mean CDC guidelines, which are pretty maximalists. As Lemieux pointed out in the podcast, CDC guidelines on young women drinking is that they should never drink since they don’t know if they might happen to be recently pregnant. “Believing in the science” is not really a reasonable position because we are developing public policy, which requires dealing with the people we have, not the people we might want to have.
Again, this is not telling you to not wear a mask and go hang out in the bars. This is saying that we live in the world and that world isn’t probably going to do anything more than it is already doing to stop the spread of the virus. If we are all being 90% safe, it’s good enough.