State and local officials across the country are unleashing a new weapon in America’s war against the coronavirus: the cops. Citing parties as the cause of recent clusters of infections in Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker recently authorized state and local police to crack down on public and private gatherings that violate social-distancing guidelines. The sheriff’s office in New York City took on new coronavirus duties, including the enforcement of party bans. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that the city will shut off power and water to residences where large gatherings take place, and the county public-health department, in what it described as a “legally binding order,” declared that party hosts will be subject to fines, imprisonment, or both.
As long as any clusters of infections are linked to parties, public-health officials will need to figure out how to help people avoid these dangers. Public health is a service industry, and it cannot serve customers without first trying to understand them. Instead of yelling at people for being careless and selfish—a perfectly understandable reaction—let’s start by asking why people are partying.
The end of the coronavirus pandemic is not, unfortunately, nigh. As these months drag on, people are seeking out social contact not out of selfishness but because, like going to the grocery store, human connection is an essential activity. Americans are experiencing a pervasive, long-term collective trauma, and our endurance will come from the relationships we’re able to sustain during the pandemic. Social capital—that is, the norms, values, and connections that people share—is an important determinant of how well they can weather and recover from a crisis. If public-health professionals want Americans to persist, they need to adopt messaging and policies that minimize infection while also maximizing resilience and well-being. Instead of turning partygoers into criminals, officials can offer safer ways for people to stay connected—and support struggling businesses in the process—by opening, redesigning, and loosening restrictions on the use of outdoor spaces.