Perspectives: The One Rule for COVID

PM Contributing Editor Sean Collier distills what experts have learned about how the virus spreads into a 12-word safety tip.
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At this point, there can be no denying that the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic, both locally and throughout the country, is at its worst.

Case numbers and deaths are rising on a daily basis. Hospital beds are filling up. In nearly every corner of the country, community spread is at its apex. When we were (mostly) sheltering in place earlier this year, the raw numbers weren’t nearly as bad as they are now — and any hope that the few months we spent laying low would prevent further calamity have long since disappeared.

Those looking for good news in the current state of the pandemic have very limited points of hope; most hanging on the impending release of a vaccine. That development certainly bodes well for the future, but I’m sorry to report that the future is not yet here. An optimistic timeline for meaningful distribution still involves a long period of an untamed pandemic. Assuredly, millions more will be infected in the coming months.

There is one area of clarity, however. While there is still more to learn about this virus, we know much more than we did in March. We do not need to disinfect the mail; we do not need to second-guess every doorknob. (Please do keep washing your hands, but that’s good advice at all times.)

We know enough, I think, to broadly distill COVID-19 safety to one rule:

Don’t hang out indoors with people who don’t live in your house.

That’s a fairly short sentence, but let’s break it down anyway. Defining who does and does not live in your house is fairly straightforward, so let’s look at “indoors.”

While it is not impossible to catch COVID-19 outside — like, say, if you rush the field after a Notre Dame football game — it’s much more difficult to contract a viral load in the open air. While social distance should be observed and masks should be worn, there’s no particular reason to worry that a small group of people outdoors, sitting or walking at a distance from one another, are a vector for easy transmission.

There are certainly some outdoor spaces that are safer than others; if you’ve got a couple dozen people crowding into a phonebooth-sized back yard somewhere in Lawrenceville, that’s not exactly safe. And while outdoor dining is infinitely preferable to eating indoors, not every patio and hastily arranged sidewalk is COVID safe. Generally, though, you can hang out if you’re outside.

I’m using the phrase “hang out” deliberately as well. The spaces that are emerging as the most culpable in terms of transmission are those where people linger: restaurants, gyms, churches and parties. Much lower on the list are those spaces where people generally enter and exit, like a supermarket; if you keep moving and don’t dawdle, you’re at a much lower risk than if you stay in place.

In other words, you can mess with any clause in “don’t hang out indoors with people who don’t live in your house,” if necessary. You can probably hang out outdoors with those people, if you’re careful; you can do what you want with the people who already sleep under the same roof. You can even enter a building without too much concern, if you’re properly masked and you don’t linger.

Nothing other than staying home for the next six months will be truly safe, but given an environment where some feel we haven’t been given enough guidance or clear enough parameters, there’s the rule. Don’t hang out indoors with people who don’t live in your house. If you can do nothing else, follow that rule.

It can be frustrating, of course, to follow that rule while watching others ignore it. I’m as guilty as anyone of looking at social media with anger and frustration when I see others indulging in the risky behaviors I won’t allow for myself. “Why should I work to help others who will not work to help me,” the thought goes; it’s tempting and understandable.

As time passes, however, my attitude toward the people increasing the danger for the rest of us turns from anger to pity. How sad it is that these individuals will put themselves at risk of death and debilitation in the name of temporary and hollow comforts. What a bleak reality to face, that some are so averse to any temporary disruption that they would chance illness and death for their loved ones.

When I see people going to parties and taking vacations, at that moment, I’m angry. But I know that some of them will unknowingly infect their own family members. There are people who will lose loved ones because they couldn’t conceive of having a Thanksgiving dinner in April or exchanging Christmas gifts in June.

What a shame that lives will be lost for that lack of strength.

Categories: Collier’s Weekly