Friday, November 27, 2020

Arbitrary, Unscientific, And Conflicting Lockdown Restrictions Confusing The Carens

theatlantic  |  Two weeks ago, I staged a reluctant intervention via Instagram direct message. The subject was a longtime friend, Josh, who had been sharing photos of himself and his fiancé occasionally dining indoors at restaurants since New York City, where we both live, had reopened them in late September. At first, I hadn’t said anything. Preliminary research suggests that when people congregate indoors, an infected person is almost 20 times more likely to transmit the virus than if they were outside. But restaurants are open legally in New York, and I am not the COVID police. Josh and I had chatted several times in the early months of the pandemic about safety, and I felt sure that he was making an informed decision, even if it wasn’t the one I’d make.

As weeks passed, my confidence began to slip. The number of daily new cases in NYC started to balloon, heightening the risk of transmission in any closed space, but Josh kept going to restaurants. Maybe he was misunderstanding something about the risk. Maybe he’d want to know. The next time he posted about COVID-19, I told him, as gently as I could, that if he was trying to stay safe, it would be a good idea to stop dining indoors.

My suspicions were correct. Because the state and city had reopened restaurants, Josh, who asked to be identified only by his first name to protect his privacy, assumed that local health officials had figured out a patchwork of precautions that would make indoor dining safe. He and his fiancé had even gone one extra step, making a Google Map of places they knew were being particularly strict with temperature checks. They were listening to the people they were told to listen to—New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently released a book about how to control the pandemic—and following all the rules.

Josh was irritated, but not because of me. If indoor dining couldn’t be made safe, he wondered, why were people being encouraged to do it? Why were temperature checks being required if they actually weren’t useful? Why make rules that don’t keep people safe?

Across America, this type of honest confusion abounds. While a misinformation-gorged segment of the population rejects the expert consensus on virus safety outright, so many other people, like Josh, are trying to do everything right, but run afoul of science without realizing it. Often, safety protocols, of all things, are what’s misleading them. In the country’s new devastating wave of infections, a perilous gap exists between the realities of transmission and the rules implemented to prevent it. “When health authorities present one rule after another without clear, science-based substantiation, their advice ends up seeming arbitrary and capricious,” the science journalist Roxanne Khamsi recently wrote in Wired. “That erodes public trust and makes it harder to implement rules that do make sense.” Experts know what has to be done to keep people safe, but confusing policies and tangled messages from some of the country’s most celebrated local leaders are setting people up to die.