Since the first case of the novel coronavirus was confirmed in the United States, my friends, colleagues, and I have regularly found ourselves in group chats discussing different versions of the same question: “Is [this ill-advised thing I want to do] OK right now?” For every event or errand or behavior that gets a conclusive “no, absolutely not” from the CDC or a public health expert, three new “Is it OK?” questions spring up, hydra-like, in its place.
Can I go to the gym? Can I go to my friend’s place if we’ve both been at home for two weeks? Is it still OK to hold a baby shower at home for 30 people this weekend? Can’t I just run to the store to pick up some non-essential supplies so I can bake a pie? Is it OK to host a game night? Can I go for a walk with a buddy if we stay six feet apart? I’m sure it’s fine to go home to my parents’ house, right?
The answer is no. Until further notice—meaning, some significant developments in testing, manufacturing, infrastructure, and government coordination—you can assume the answer to any and all of the questions you think of in the “social distancing loopholes” genre is no.
No in-person first dates or group exercise classes. No jaunts to your parents’ house or trips back to the city where you actually live from wherever you fled to a month ago. No IRL baby showers or walks with friends or spontaneous trips to the grocery store for "just a few things." The place where you are, at this moment, is the place you need to stay. It’s going to be this way intermittently, and maybe even constantly, until there is a vaccine for COVID-19.
Are there exceptions to this rule? Of course. There always are. But an inconvenience is not an exception. And my guess is that if you are experiencing the sort of emergency or unique circumstances where the only solution involves leaving your home or interacting with others, you wouldn’t be asking for permission.
In late March, the director of the CDC warned that 25 percent of COVID-19 cases could be asymptomatic. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is advising the White House on coronavirus, said last week the figure could be as high as 50 percent. FIFTY PERCENT!!! One out of every two people who are infected might not know it. You could be a carrier and not know it.
But a lot of folks are still approaching coronavirus from a place of, What are my personal odds of illness, and, if I get sick, of surviving the illness? versus, How can I not harm other people? It’s not just people who have been inside for a couple weeks without symptoms, either; people who are sick are engaging in astonishing mental gymnastics to convince themselves that, yes, they might have COVID-19, but they aren’t actually that contagious, and anyway, they are bored and want to go for a jog, so can you please leave them alone about it!!!
“I’m not sick” (or "I'm not that sick") is not an excuse. Neither is, “I’m young and healthy, so I don’t care if I get coronavirus.” Even disregarding that being young and healthy won’t save you, and that many “mild” cases are absolute hell, you should do everything in your power to not get other people sick. And the main thing—the only thing—that many of us can do in that respect is stay home… even if it’s challenging, even if it’s taking a toll on our mental health, even if we feel like being at our mom’s house or wandering in Target for an hour would definitely make everything feel less bad, even if we’re pretty sure we could do it in a way that probably wouldn’t kill anyone.
Viruses don’t operate by potential carriers’ best intentions. They operate exclusively by our actions. No one is leaving their house thinking, I am going to be the superspreader who kills a bunch of people by running some errands/taking a walk with my friend/meeting up with a Tinder date today. Yet thousands and thousands of people have died.
As bleak as the numbers are, I understand why so many smart, thoughtful people are continuing to pose questions about "loopholes." Staying home is simple, but it’s not exactly easy. Adjusting to and accepting the new reality of this enormous crisis will take time. I’m not sure we’ll ever stop feeling restless or lose the periodic desire to shout, “Fuck it, I NEED to get out and touch another human, no matter what happens!!!” I’ve been at this for about six weeks, and, at least once a day, I feel homesick for my life as it existed in February.
I don’t fault anyone who is struggling or who thinks this is unfair. It is unfair. It fucking sucks!!! It’s not childish to wish things were different, or to be sad that you have to give up a chunk of time in your life that you had expected to look a certain way. Losing your routine, your freedom, and/or your income—along with your established ways of connecting with the world—is a huge deal. We need time to grieve. Despite what our “suck it up, buttercup!!!” culture might tell us, trying to rush through or avoid the despondent phase of this pandemic isn’t going to help anyone.
It’s also understandable to be very angry about the fact that you have to stay home. I’m fucking furious right now! I’m angry at our incompetent president and the lack of testing that made these restrictions necessary. I am angry that we live in a country where so many people live paycheck to paycheck, where health insurance is inextricably linked with employment, and where essential workers risk their lives for $10 per goddamn hour, and the general consensus is, OK, but it’s not like we can expect billionaire tech overlords to make a little less money.
The U.S. has demonstrated a lack of interest in government action—through proactive measures like widely available testing or contact tracing—or a functioning social safety net. The onus, once again, is on individuals… and the personal burden of managing the spread of a disease like this is absurdly, unfairly high. But refusing to participate, or constantly trying to bend the rules, has terrible consequences for everyone.
So the answer is no, even if the thing you want to do hasn’t been explicitly discouraged or banned, or if the county you’re in doesn’t have many (or any!) confirmed COVID-19 cases yet. There is enough information coming out of the hardest-hit regions that you can reasonably intuit what you need to do, wherever you happen to be. California took comparatively “early” action when there were only 100 confirmed deaths in the state, and that appears to be paying off.
Also, if a mandate from the governor addressed to you personally is the only thing that is keeping you from potentially sickening people, that’s… not great. In the midst of a global crisis, we should all be acting as much, or more, in the spirit of the law as we are in the letter of the law. Instead of looking for exceptions based on what is legal, we can be guided by what is moral.
It’s going to be even more important to remember this as the weather gets nicer and the unemployment numbers get bleaker and politicians' back-and-forth dithering over "when to reopen the country” gets louder. A Harvard study published Tuesday found that it’s possible that we will need intermittent social distancing periods into 2022. Even if those restrictions ease up in an official sense, coronavirus stands a high chance of roaring back, according to research, as it already has in some countries.
It’s completely OK to hate this—to feel really, really bad about the state of the world, including the fact that you are being told to get on board with fairly extreme lifestyle changes. How bad you, personally, feel will depend somewhat on your living situation, occupation, resources, and baseline physical and mental health. Still, there’s no way any of us are going to make it through a historically unmatched pandemic (!!!) without experiencing some loss. If the only thing you lose is your ability to go to Target whenever you want for six to 12 months, you will be one of the lucky ones. There’s people that are dying, Kim.
As much as this hurts, it is also the way one can expect to feel during a crisis. If it felt mostly fine and easy to manage, it wouldn’t be a once-in-a-lifetime, five-alarm public health disaster. Whenever I am feeling particularly frustrated, I find that it helps me to remember that this, in large part, is what a sacrifice is. Feeling awful is not good, but it is right—that is, it is correct. The collective sense of helplessness and sadness and rage and overwhelming desire for things to be different and “normal” again is the grief. The solution—if we can even call it that—is just to sit with your fury and your despair and your fear for a little while.
I wish someone could tell us exactly how long things will be this way. But all we know right now is "not forever"—that we’re going to be here for a while, until we’re not.
I hope that people’s questions about “good” behavior during this pandemic will soon begin to shift to ones rooted in the assumption that we’re committed to social distancing, public health, flattening the curve, and not getting others or ourselves sick. What should I do with all the beans I bought a month ago? What should I do about this crushing loneliness I feel when I can’t see people IRL? Should I flirt with the roommate I’ve developed a crush on? Should I cut my own bangs?
But if you know, deep down, that your question is just a fresh rephrasing of, “May I be granted one (1) exception to the CDC recommendations in order to be a little less uncomfortable because I think my needs are more important than others'?” The answer is no. Someday the answer will be yes. I’d say I can’t wait for that day, but I can, and I will—because it’s right and we must.
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Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People, coming May 2020. Follow her on Twitter.