How much risk you assume should also depend on how extensive the coronavirus outbreak is in your town, who you are, and whom you might encounter when you go out. “If you are someone who falls into a high-risk group based on age or comorbidities, I would be more cautious in decision making,” Rachael Piltch-Loeb, a research scientist at New York University’s College of Global Public Health, told me. “Similarly, are you someone who lives with or provides for those that may be at higher risk? If so, I would also be more cautious.”
Even with these basic guidelines in place, Kirk Sell told me that some situations are difficult to assess. In particular, “the verdict is still out on what’s happening for transmission in schools,” she said. Should many schools reopen in the fall, some parents could nevertheless resist sending their kids in over fears they could bring home the coronavirus. Although the disease is far less deadly for children, some kids have died in the U.S. and hundreds more have come down with a mysterious inflammatory condition believed to be a complication of COVID-19. In general, it’s still not clear whether children are less likely to catch the coronavirus than adults, less likely to exhibit symptoms, or both. Visits to grandma aren’t safe just yet.
Read: The kids aren’t all right
Ideally, all of this advice would come early and often from public-health authorities at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institutes of Health. It would be reiterated regularly in press briefings and interviews by health-department officials at the state and local levels. Politicians would abdicate their starring roles in the spotlight and become members of the supporting cast. Almost none of this has gone according to plan.
Instead, many Americans have begun to calcify at the extremes, believing that staying home 24 hours a day for months on end is the only morally defensible thing to do, or that refusing to wear a mask in a grocery store is an essential expression of personal freedom. For those people, a new recommendation for moderate precautions based on new data might look like an intolerable win for their opponents. To avoid that, leaders need to “set the expectation that things will change, we’re going to learn more, and that guidelines are going to change,” Tom Hipper, a risk-communications professor at the Drexel University School of Public Health, told me. “A level of honesty and openness about the unknowns of where we are now is really important.” Changing rules don’t necessarily mean that the government or scientists were lying to you before. Far more likely is that the rules have shifted to reflect what’s been learned about a rapidly evolving crisis.
It might seem counterintuitive that moderation can make people safer in a situation that, by its very nature, requires an extreme response. But when faced with a long-haul crisis like a pandemic, figuring out exactly what works to keep people healthy shouldn’t be thought of as moderation—it’s progress. A person only has so much energy and focus to put into pandemic fastidiousness, and better guidelines on how they should use them would make safety more efficient and people’s mid-crisis lives more livable. “People are going to start making steps toward doing some more things,” Kirk Sell told me. “We can’t forever be in our houses.”