I know you want to, but just don’t. That quick walk to get takeout? Skip it. Traveling elsewhere to ride out the pandemic with family? Too risky. And don’t even get me started about spring break.
Social distancing has become the rallying cry of the coronavirus pandemic—a guideline from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that has blown up into a social-media hashtag and even a line of Etsy attire. It’s an alluring prospect: Just cancel those plans with friends and stay six feet away from everyone, and we should be able to stave off a Contagion-style lockdown. But California, New York, and Illinois have now taken it a step further, compelling their residents to stay at home.
Don’t wait for your state to bar you from leaving the house. If you don’t have work or care responsibilities that absolutely require you to leave the house, put yourself on lockdown.
When the pandemic first hit, I had the same thought as a lot of other young adults: I want my mom. Instead of squatting for months in my cramped D.C. apartment with my roommate who refuses to clean, I decamped to my parents’ house in suburban Ohio. But I see now that that almost certainly was a big mistake.
I double-checked with Jennifer Dowd, an Oxford University epidemiologist and demographer. Should Americans be going out for anything other than the absolute basics? “No” was the curt response I got. “I think we should all think really hard about why we would need to leave other than for necessities,” she went on. “If you can, just hunker down.”
The big problem with the phrase social distancing is that it’s going through an acute case of concept creep: Does it mean you can still head off to work in the morning and invite a friend over for dinner? Or does it mean you have to be holed up at home until further notice? “Social distancing is such a malleable term—malleable in the mouths of officials and in the minds of their audience,” Peter Sandman, a risk-communication consultant, told me. “To some, social distancing means try not to hang out in crowded places unless you really really want to. To others, it means stay completely isolated no matter what.” (The Atlantic has a guide to what public-health experts say you should and shouldn’t do under social distancing here.)
And the more capacious definition doesn’t cut it anymore. “Just [doing] social distancing may delay some cases,” says Julie Fischer, a microbiologist at Georgetown University. “But those measures are not entirely going to stop the spread of the epidemic.”
When Dowd studied how the coronavirus spread across Italy, she found that one reason the outbreak there has proved so utterly disastrous is because of young people traveling between their jobs in big cities and their older relatives’ homes. It’s common for young adults working in Milan to live with their family in nearby villages and commute into the city—which ultimately made them big conduits of the disease to their elderly and more vulnerable relatives. “It helped to bring the initial transmission that might have come into Milan from abroad out to these communities with a high percentage of older people,” she told me.
A lockdown can feel eerily draconian or downright authoritarian, and implementing a countrywide shelter-in-place mandate in the United States would be a legal quagmire. So rather than waiting to see if the federal, state, and local governments demand it, Americans should take on the onus of holing themselves up at home.
Yes, being in lockdown quite frankly sucks. One week in, and I’m already sick of Netflix. Pasta and beans get old very quickly. Shifting between rooms doesn’t do much to keep away the cabin fever. But every person who goes a little crazy stuck at home is saving an untold number of lives.
This is especially true if you live somewhere that isn’t yet in full on crisis mode. “Even if you’re in a city that doesn’t have a lot of infections, you should still be taking these type of measures,” says William Hanage, a Harvard University epidemiologist. “This is early on. If [we] manage to stop infections happening now, [we’re] going to be saving hundreds of thousands of people down the line.”
In places that have already been hard-hit by the coronavirus, early lockdowns have been successful in tamping down the outbreak. Hanage told me that while the Chinese cities of Wuhan and Guangzhou both put in place strict controls on movement, Guangzhou had far fewer cases when it did so, and was able to keep infection rates significantly more manageable.
The unfortunate truth is that a self-imposed lockdown won’t be possible for everyone. Many Americans can’t simply Zoom into work meetings and hunch over their laptops in bed. But your decision to just stay at home if you can helps them out. “It’s a simple calculation,” Hanage told me. “People who can’t work from home are being protected by the people who are working from home, since the work-from-home people help prevent themselves from becoming infected and taking an ICU bed that those other people need.”
In the coming weeks, many more cities and states may start forcing just about everyone to stay at home. But until then, don’t be like me.