Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should

As states and cities waffle on pandemic restrictions, public health has become individuals’ responsibility.

A man wearing a mask sits alone in a theater.
Carlos Alvarez / Getty

It would feel so good to give up. To hug our friends, to visit our grandparents. To eat one meal, just one, at a restaurant table instead of on the couch, maybe even without the kids in tow. Even a mundane day of running errands—shopping, getting a haircut, going to the gym—would be glorious.

There’s no reward for abstaining from these things—just, hopefully, the absence of consequences. And lately, fewer rules are left to stop anyone, even as coronavirus case numbers in the United States surge. That means it’s on each of us to stop ourselves from doing unnecessary things that we know will put others at risk, even if those things are technically allowed. The fight to contain the coronavirus is far from over; it’s just entering a new phase in which individual choice matters more than ever.

The U.S. is in the swing of “reopening,” a word that can mean any number of things depending on where you live. Many states have allowed retail stores, restaurants, gyms, and salons to reopen for in-person service (many at reduced capacity), or are considering allowing them to do so in the near future. In some places, movie theaters and pools reopened to the public too.

In the pandemic’s early days in the U.S., health experts proclaimed the importance of social distancing, but individuals were largely on their own in figuring out how to apply that advice to their daily life. Then lawmakers began taking responsibility for shaping Americans’ behavior. The orders that many state and local governments started issuing in March and April—to just stay home, as much as you possibly could—may have been burdensome to follow, but at least they were simple.

Now knowing what’s allowed in your area requires looking up your state’s policies, and also your city’s or county’s policies. For example, Texas currently prohibits outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people, whereas the city of Austin has banned socializing in groups of more than 10 (with the exception of those who share a home). And because many places have divided their reopening plans into phases, those policies will shift over time. Some policies have dangerous wiggle room—for instance, Eater has reported that social-distancing measures are “recommended but not enforced” for dine-in service at restaurants in both South Carolina and South Dakota. Other states, such as Tennessee and Wisconsin, “strongly encourage” patrons to wear masks in businesses, but don’t require it.

Although what we can do has changed rapidly, what we should do hasn’t changed much. Public-health experts had warned that states were likely reopening too soon for safety. When my colleague Joe Pinsker asked experts in May what they deemed safe to do as economies reopen, they stressed the risks of indoor gatherings of any kind; meanwhile, some states had already allowed retail stores and restaurants to reopen at limited capacity. Now some of the states that are hardest hit, such as Arizona and Texas, are states that lifted restrictions early. Both Arizona and Texas, along with other states, have now paused or rolled back aspects of their reopening plans as a result of the new surge in cases.

Diners eat outdoors at a restaurant in the East Village in New York City, on June 28, 2020. (John Lamparski / Getty)

Throughout the pandemic, many political leaders in the U.S. have made decisions and delivered messages that run contrary to what public-health experts say needs to be done to stop the virus. “This is an extraordinary failure of leadership in the United States,” Nancy Koehn, a historian at the Harvard Business School who studies crisis leadership, told me. “At the national level, there’s been a complete abdication by the government to help people make choices and adopt behaviors.”

Some state and local governments, along with their public-health officials, have shouldered the responsibility themselves. Koehn cited New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings as the kind of clear explanation, “brutal honesty,” and “credible hope” that leaders should provide in a crisis such as this. But in other places, residents aren’t getting reliable guidance, and that can have deadly results. Koehn sees the rise of COVID-19 cases in the Sun Belt as “all about a lack of leadership or inconsistent leadership.” Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, for example, banned local authorities from enacting rules requiring masks, only to later walk the ban back. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott recently said that his ban on mask ordinances does allow local governments to mandate that businesses require their patrons and employees to wear masks, a loophole that wasn’t apparent at first.

Reopening is shifting the responsibility for public safety from leaders and policy makers back onto individuals. Unlike in February, when individuals and governments alike were scrambling to figure out how to combat the pandemic, we now know what to do to limit the spread of the virus. Some governments are simply choosing not to do it. In a recent Washington Post interview, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged the important role that citizens have to play under these circumstances. “What we do as individuals will have an impact on the success or not of getting this outbreak under control,” he said. In other words: Right now, every American has a duty to not take foolish risks.

Of course, people have little choice but to take some risks. Workers whose bosses require them to come in to work will come in. They may need to return their kids to day care to do so. People need to go to the doctor; they need to buy food. Everything else becomes a complex decision tree in which a person has to weigh the benefits of an activity, the state of the outbreak in her area, local regulations, and her own risk factors against—let’s be honest—what her peers think is okay, and what she really, really wants to do.

The longer businesses are open, and the more people see their loved ones partaking in activities that were forbidden a couple of months ago, the more normalized those things will become—even if public-health experts and the media emphasize the risks; even if people know, cognitively, that the risks of transmission haven’t changed much. Research has shown that our families and peers influence many of our health decisions; there’s no reason to think that this fundamental human tendency will change during a pandemic.

Most of the time, relying on information from authority figures and our peers is a pretty good way to make decisions. “It’s probably sensible most of the time to believe if the government says now is the time to open up, it might be safe,” says Robert H. Frank, the author of Under the Influence, a book about peer pressure, and a management professor at Cornell University. And peer pressure, he says, isn’t always a bad thing. Taking cues from those around you has cognitive advantages. “It’s a complicated world out there,” he told me. “Each one of us knows only a tiny fraction of what would be good to know. You don’t know much; I don’t know much. But together, people actually know quite a bit about the world.”

In the case of the pandemic, though, there’s a significant concern that people will emulate the risks they see their friends taking—risks that would be far harder to take if lawmakers kept restrictions in place. Koehn quoted David Foster Wallace’s definition of leadership to me: “A real leader is somebody who … can get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” But now, when good leadership is absent, we have to try to do the better, harder things anyway.

Saying no to the ones you love is hard. No, let’s not hang out inside your house. No, I won’t see you at church this week. No, I won’t come to your wedding. No, we’re not having the family reunion this year. It’s harder when there isn’t a policy to blame, when there’s nothing legally stopping you. When other people are doing it, and look how happy they seem! It hurts to see smiling faces inside a restaurant as you walk by alone, breathing in your own hot breath under your mask.

It is probably too much to ask that everyone say no to everything indefinitely. A vaccine is likely months—at least—away. Activities that carry small (but not zero) risk, such as going on walks with friends, at a safe distance, will be important for people’s mental health and sense of social connection as the crisis drags on. But it’s vital that even as our states and cities reopen, we continue to use great care and consideration for others in deciding where to go, whom to see, and how close to get.

Frank thinks that if we bear the power of peer pressure in mind, it’ll help us resist that influence. “Know that you’re going to feel conflict when you confront that set of mixed pressures,” he said. “If it’s a conflict between what the epidemiologists are telling you to do and what your friends are doing, the cost of getting [the disease] is high enough that you ought to summon your courage and stick with what the epidemiologists are telling you to do.”

These are difficult times to live in. It isn’t fair that so many Americans have to navigate this crisis without clear leadership, with no end in sight. Knowing that life and death hang in the balance of seemingly mundane choices is a heavy weight to bear. It would be easy to give up. It would feel so good to give up. There is no reward for not giving up.

Don’t give up.