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The state of Texas, which has implemented some of the most aggressive “reopening” strategies so far, experienced its largest single-day jump in reported coronavirus cases over the weekend. The state of Georgia, which was one of the first states to reopen, is such a mess that the state government was caught trying to mislead people about the direction cases are trending. The thing that experts predicted would happen as states reopen appears to be happening: People are getting sick.
That’s a terrifying problem, now that, as of yesterday, all 50 states have begun to lift their lockdowns. The pandemic isn’t “over,” but the country’s patience has apparently run out. People are willing to risk their lives to get their hair cut, and state governments have decided to let them. When reached for comment, Covid-19 took the form of Al Pacino and said: “Vanity, definitely my favorite sin.”
It’s tempting to conclude that the newly infected deserve their fate. There’s a video going around of people gathering on a beach in Galveston, Tex., for “Go Topless Jeep Weekend” (the lack of punctuation is important, I believe) and I’m hard-pressed to find anybody in the video who should be allowed back into the gene pool. Watching these dispatches, there’s a hope that only the people who seem to be trying to get sick will get sick, that it’s their choice to be irrational, and, if that’s the case, that we should all be quiet while Darwin’s theory does its work.
Unfortunately, that’s not how our society works. That’s not how communicable diseases work. That’s not how any of this works. Cell phone data shows that the small groups of largely white confederates who have attended anti-lockdown protests spread themselves across hundreds of miles, even into neighboring states, within 48 hours of attending one of their Covid parties. And, of course, the people most likely to congregate in large groups without wearing a mask are also the people most likely to show up at your local grocery store or Costco without wearing a mask, sneeze on your potential purchases, and then amble off in search of more “freedom” while leaving sickness and death in their wake.
Quite simply: It’s the people who are most vocal about wanting the country to reopen who are making it too dangerous to reopen the country. It’s the people who are least concerned about their own health who are putting everybody else’s health at risk.
The only rational response to these people who refuse to abide by social distancing guidelines is for people who want to protect themselves to shelter in place even longer. At this point, even if the government provided widespread testing (which it still has not) and these people knew they had Covid, I wouldn’t trust them to stay inside. Society is only as strong as its weakest link, and right now our weakest links are showing themselves to be literal mouth breathers who can’t be bothered to cover their faces.
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The problem is that the rational response is not available to everybody equally. For the most part, the people who want the stores and bars and beaches open are not the people who have to work at the stores and bars and beaches. The people who refuse to serve the greater good by wearing a mask demand service. Every time a business is badgered into opening, there’s a whole host of people who are pressed into service: not just the employees of that business but also the many folks who make up our whole societal support apparatus—police, sanitation workers, transit workers, parking valets. Scores of humans have to risk their health just so a Trump voter can drink unobstructed by a face mask until they puke into a trashcan.
If these people were serious about restoring economic activity for the workers in need of a paycheck, rather than just for their own personal enjoyment, then they’d be begging to wear a mask so that those workers could return to their jobs as safely as possible. They’d be begging to stay six feet apart to show that Americans can be trusted to look out for each other. If everybody could just be smart and follow the rules, we might be at a point where limited social engagement and economic activity could be possible without causing a dramatic spike in disease. People could take their tops off if they would just keep their masks on. We could go to the beach and even spend money if people would just use the giant ocean to maintain social distance. If we were smart and careful, we might not have to spend the summer completely alone and afraid.
We can’t have these nice things because we have too many selfish people spoiling it for everybody else. We can’t manage the crisis, because too many people have decided to be unmanageable. We are slowly beginning to understand how to protect ourselves from the virus. But we have no clue how to protect ourselves from the virulent people who insist on spreading the virus because they’ve determined they can live with other people dying. A person walking around without a mask isn’t telegraphing that they don’t care about their own life; they’re shouting that they don’t care about yours. They’re willing to be the one who kills you, because they don’t value anybody’s life but their own.
The most aggressive reopeners know exactly whose lives they aren’t interested in protecting: black and brown people, old people, and working people. The Washington Post grabbed some quotes from giddy “reopeners” gathered in crowds without protective equipment outside a Georgia mall. The quotes are breathtaking examples of people saying the quiet part aloud:
“I think you have to live life,” said Jeff Lampel, taking a sip of beer.
“When you start seeing where the cases are coming from and the demographics—I’m not worried,” agreed his friend Scott Friedel.
“I know what people are going to say—‘Those selfish idiots are killing our old people!’” said Lampel.
“How do you give up a day like this—really, how?” Friedel said, enjoying the last rays of sun as the music kept playing and the crowds kept coming.
Jeff Lampel is right about one thing: He and his friend are selfish idiots.
The calculus by these two guys is instructive. The costs and risks of reopening are not borne by the people clamoring for it, and they know it. Nikole Hannah Jones (the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter behind The 1619 Project) has said that the push to reopening is “linked to the belief that Covid is disproportionately killing black and brown folks.” It’s objectively insane to risk lives so Tweedledee and Tweedledum can get together and drool on each other on a sunny day. The only thing that allows them to be so unbothered and so unwilling to take minimum precautions is their belief about who is really getting sick.
I can’t fix these people. I can’t educate them. I can’t teach them to care about somebody other than themselves. In some deep, vengeful part of my brain, I might hope that they get sick—sick enough to realize the error of their ways—but that wouldn’t solve anything. Covid cannot fill the gaping hole where their empathy is supposed to be; it will just add to their endless reserves of self-pity.
All I can do is protect myself from them. And that involves staying inside for as long as I possibly can. That stinks for me. And it stinks for the businesses that need my consumerism. There is economic activity that I would like to engage in. I would like to take my kids to the ice cream truck (or, at the very least, I’d like to sue the ice cream truck for making me Daddy Bad Guy when I tell my kids we cannot answer its siren song). But I can’t. I can’t risk some maskless MAGA bro standing right behind us in line and launching into a spittle-hurling “it’s a hoax” rant when I politely ask him to take two steps back from my family.
It’s a privilege to be able to stay inside. Outside, working people have no refuge from customers who don’t care if they live or die.
But working people will not go down without a fight. The antidote to the Topless Jeep people is this hero Costco employee who barred a disease vector who refused to wear a mask from continuing to shop. We can only hope businesses that take seriously the health and safety of their employees and customers will be rewarded, while people who only care about themselves will be ostracized to their Chick-Fil-A and NASCAR infields.
Right now, my house is the only place where I feel safe from the idiots. As we reopen, I’ll only be going to the places that promise to keep me safe from them.