In the movie Independence Day, Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum have a very specific idea of when something is “over.” For the world right now, let’s just say that for the moment, a certain person hasn’t sung yet, so no, social distancing isn’t over just yet. But, it could — for all intents and purposes — be over on the 4th of July.
Unless you’re in New Jersey, chances are your state has let you know that it is officially reopening, on the march to “business as usual.” Lockdown orders are lifted, stores are reopening — bars and restaurants included — and everywhere, there is pressure to go out. It’s not explicit, of course. Most elected officials* are encouraging people to socially distance and to be cautious even as social spaces open up. The pressure felt right now is more a matter of opportunity (we can go out!) set next to a desire (to go out!) strained by circumstance (oh, the loneliness). There are scores of parables for this occasion, like the one about the hungry man sent to the buffet table in Las Vegas, only to be swarmed with maskless revelers who are with little doubt spreading COVID-19.
Parents, stuck home with kids whose school is distanced, summer camps stubbornly closed, and sanity fraying, may not be the first to throw caution to the wind, but they will be the first to ask questions: Is daycare safe? How about a sitter? God, sitting down in a booth with wine and pizza — how about that? There aren’t precise answers to these questions. There are risk assessments that are complicated and uncomfortable. No two people will come to the exact same conclusions when it comes to specific risks.
But there is one question with a clear answer: Is it safe now? Let’s assess: In the past week, some 140,000 were diagnosed with COVID-19 in the U.S., 2,000 people died; and 46% of states currently are on an upward trend. Experts usually apply a two-week delay on data (since this is how long it typically takes for an infected person to be contagious), so these numbers are reflective of Memorial Day, a relatively cautious time where, sure, some beaches were full but people were more skittish than today. Next week we’ll see what millions of people across the country in crowds besting 100,000 with varying degrees of respiratory precaution will do for the coronavirus. Is it safe now? No, definitely not.
“My recommendations haven’t changed,” says Dr. Logan Spector, Division Director of Pediatric Epidemiology and Clinical Research at the University of Minnesota. “And I think that prudence dictates to wait until the Fourth of July to decide whether you get out there and celebrate in mass.”
Fourth of July? Didn’t Cuomo and all the most cautious get the message from public health professionals? Yes, but they weren’t the only ones giving a message. “The government has two things going on: Following the scientific recommendations and bowing to social reality,” says Spector. “There are plenty of leaders who have been saying you can only do the distancing for so long. And I think we found out in the U.S. just how long that is.”
So, while the lockdown is officially over in most places, it’s a very good idea right now to just ignore that fact. There are, of course, communities where you can start to dabble in non-essential outings that afford social distancing — like shopping with a mask or going on a picnic in a park. How do you decide? First of all, pay attention to local cases. When they’ve been on the decline for 10 days, says Spector, you can proceed with caution (i.e. a mask and distance). Second, look in the mirror and be honest with yourself. Make sure you’re showing no symptoms nor have been around anyone with potential symptoms.
Or, better yet, mark your calendars for July 4. It is a much better time than now to make a decision. We’ll have an idea of the numbers that come out of this perfect storm (of protests, school ending, Memorial day, and enticing weather) for a spike. Until then, stay close to home, away from crowds, skipping the lure of restaurants and bars.
Independence Day. It has a nice ring to it. Epidemiologists seem to be betting that by then the groundhog seeing his shadow and having six more weeks of caution, but hey, maybe the downward slope will continue. Maybe for the Fourth, you can invite a friend or two (less than 10 total) over for a backyard barbecue — outside, with distancing, and, sure, a nice bottle of rosé.
*There are some glaring exceptions like from Calif. Rep. Devin Nunes who said, “‘If you’re healthy, you and your family, it’s a great time to just go out and go to a local restaurant, likely you can get in easily. … [G]o to your local pub”… in March.