As states report record numbers of new COVID-19 cases, Americans are left confused about how to handle daily life.
The surges have prompted some of the most aggressive reopening advocates, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, to reverse course and require masks. President Donald Trump, who told reporters he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of being spotted in one, is planning a rally for Saturday where attendees will be “strongly encouraged” after a June campaign event, noteworthy for its lack of social distancing, drew a fraction of the supporters staff had claimed.
Even so, in New York, once the U.S. epicenter, Independence Day and the first weekend of reopened beaches brought crowds out. In Brooklyn, Prospect Park buzzed with barbecues boasting a dozen or more guests and birthday parties complete with balloons and buffets. At the Jacob Riis Park beach in Queens, crowds of sun lovers gathered while others staked out social-distanced camps, marking their perimeters with beach chairs, coolers or lines drawn in the sand. And sidewalk seating at some bars and restaurants was downright crowded, with patrons sometimes seated less than six-feet apart.
“These rules are hard,” said Jonathan Marron, a bioethicist at Harvard University. “I don’t blame people for being fed up and sick of this. It’s human nature to want to be doing this stuff.”
In Los Angeles, where new infections have spiked in recent weeks, Shayna Englin said she and her husband took social distancing seriously early on. But as cases seemed to ebb in late spring, they decided to invite some friends over to hang out in the backyard, complete with individual cheese platters for socially distant snacking.
“The rationale was we have more exposure to people we don’t know when we go to the grocery store,” the 46-year-old said. “We hung out outside, 10 feet apart, we were never in the house at the same time, and if anyone went to the bathroom, there were wipes to wipe everything down.”
After that success, they invited two friends who had tested negative recently over to stay the weekend. Next, they contemplated hitting up their favorite outdoor bar. But “we saw the massive increases in cases and hospitalization rates and got scared, honestly,” Englin said. New activities are off, and they’re holding their social circle to six until things improve.
“We maybe had some irrational hope for a hot second there,” she said. “We reassessed what we were willing to take risks for.”
Epidemiological modeling has suggested that lockdowns have limited new cases and saved lives. In one study, researchers at Imperial College London assessed the impact in 11 European countries and found lockdowns saved around 3.1 million lives. A study from the University of California, Berkeley’s Global Policy Lab showed by April 6, had there been no restrictions, there would have been nearly 14 times as many cases in the U.S.
Confusion about rules has been less common in countries where social-distancing rules have been set by central governments and enforced diligently. In France, people needed paperwork to justify leaving the house and police were deputized to check them and impose fines. But in the U.S., local officials have drafted a patchwork of often competing standards — often in accordance with local political preferences — making it difficult to determine how to appropriately navigate life during the pandemic.
A growing number of public health experts agree that there need to be more nuanced guidelines for Americans that allow some liberties. Public-health nonprofit Vital Strategies has suggested color-coded alerts that communicate to the public how severe the virus is in a given region so that people can adjust their activities appropriately on any given day. (Vital Strategies has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable foundation of Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News’s parent company.) The Texas Medical Association has an activity guide citing camping, tennis and takeout as low-risk, while movie theaters and gyms are high.
Finding a way to balance the risks with the realities of needing to resume some economic and social activity will be critical pending a vaccine, according to Abrar Karan, a physician at Harvard Medical School.
“I think some people are thinking, ‘OK, yes this is bad, but I don’t know that my personal risk is that bad,'” he said. “People are just fatigued. They are tired of staying inside.”
Officials should look at it as many smaller epidemics happening in different places, Karan said, with some spots needing stricter rules. And it’s important to tell people what they can do, as well as what they can’t.
“We need to compromise. It’s not just masks versus no masks. You need to give people something they can feasibly do,” he said. “Even by listening to 50% of our advice, people are making huge compromises.”
Polling data has consistently shown most Americans are keeping cautious as new cases hit records. An Axios-Ipsos poll from last week showed two-thirds of respondents saying they were “very concerned” about the virus, levels not seen since early May. At the same time, though, few said they’d reduced outside social engagements, with 45% reporting visits with friends and family in the past week, compared to 49% a week earlier. Going out to eat continues to increase, and visits to salons and retail stores remained flat.
At Vinny’s Barber Shop near Houston, Vinny De Leon doesn’t require patrons or barbers to wear masks as some local officials have signaled they wouldn’t enforce Abbott’s new mask policies.
“It’s very confusing,” said De Leon, who owns two barbershops in the Houston area, one where masks are required and another where they aren’t. “One day one person says one thing, the next day another says something else.”
He’s letting his barbers and customers decide what makes them comfortable. While at first, about 90% didn’t wear a mask, he’s seeing more as cases have risen in Houston. Most customers are tested regularly since their work is considered essential, De Leon said, and his employees get tested. Two of his 15 barbers have tested positive for the virus. On both occasions, the shop shut down until everyone else had tested negative.
“I’m not trying to buck the system,” he said. “I’m being pulled in every direction.”