The Fun Police Should Stand Down

Social gatherings provoke moral indignation—but bringing in law enforcement will promote injustice, not reduce infections.

Getty / The Atlantic

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.

Enforcement of social distancing may be ramping up now, but Americans have already spent the past six months policing one another’s behavior. People have been widely shamed for enjoying themselves, even when their fun is relatively innocuous—picnicking in the park, jogging with friends, or simply sprawling out in the sun, margarita in hand. Beach photos have become the iconic image of thoughtless, irresponsible behavior during the pandemic. The underlying message is clear: In this pandemic, pleasure is inessential, even intrinsically suspicious.

This preconception has consequences. Outraged by people frolicking on the lakeshore this week in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot sent the police to barricade the beaches—a relatively low-risk setting for transmission—and threatened to shut them down. The combination of criminalization and unscientific moralism is ineffective and counterproductive, and often leads authorities to take actions that may yield more infection.

The coronavirus isn’t the first pathogen that public officials have sent the cops to fight. In 34 states, potentially exposing someone to HIV—including, in some cases, through sexual activity that poses little to no risk of transmission—is a crime. Those laws have been an abject failure. Even if punishment were an appropriate response, structural racism ensures that it is not meted out fairly: In California, for example, Black and Latino people make up half of those with HIV but two-thirds of defendants in HIV-criminalization cases. In a case reported by Steven Thrasher in BuzzFeed News in 2015, the college wrestler Michael Johnson, who is Black, was prosecuted in Missouri for lying to his partners about his HIV status. After a trial rife with demeaning racial and sexual tropes, Johnson was sentenced to 30 years and served five before being freed.

No evidence indicates that the laws in question have reduced rates of condomless sex or new HIV infections. Instead, they likely increase transmission. When people know they could be punished for not disclosing their HIV status, they avoid getting tested. In the end, the only thing that criminalization succeeds in deterring is engagement in crucial public-health efforts, especially in marginalized communities that already bear the burden of the epidemic.

Before governors and mayors use police to enforce social-distancing guidelines, they should first ask: How much of a problem are parties, really? Whether these gatherings contribute more to the pandemic than other factors, such as indoor dining or unsafe work conditions, is unknown—except, perhaps, to health departments, which rarely release contact-tracing data to the public. Media reports, though, create the impression that parties are central to the problem. Last month, news broke that college students in Alabama had been throwing “COVID parties,” putting money in a pot that went to whoever could catch the virus first. “It makes me furious,” the Tuscaloosa City Councilor Sonya McKinstry told CNN. One news outlet after another picked up this salacious tale, and it exploded on social media, where users decried the alleged partygoers for their stupidity and selfishness.

The Tuscaloosa parties turned out to be nothing more than hearsay. A similar story fell apart in May when officials in Walla Walla County, Washington, retracted their assertion that residents were exposing themselves to the coronavirus intentionally. But before being debunked, both claims circulated widely. Moral outrage is just too tempting.

Even if people aren’t intentionally trying to get themselves infected, run-of-the-mill gatherings—baby showers, retirement parties, keggers—are indeed happening, and communities need a strategy for reducing their size and frequency. But instead of learning from past mistakes, officials are repeating them.

Look no further than New York City to see how this will play out. When police were authorized to enforce social-distancing guidelines, nearly all the arrests were of Black and Latino residents, including several who were punched in the face or knocked unconscious by police officers. In the meantime, not a single ticket was issued in Park Slope, a wealthy and predominantly white neighborhood, despite the crowds that gathered there in Prospect Park. It’s no surprise that New York City’s contact-tracing program, a public-health tool that relies on trust, has had limited success in getting information from people who test positive, who tend to live in the very neighborhoods that have been targeted by law enforcement.

In a strategy that may produce the same results as New York City’s, Baker, the governor of Massachusetts, is calling for more intensive law enforcement in areas with the highest rates of transmission—which disproportionately include communities of color. He has also threatened to shut down parks and playgrounds in such areas. Punitive approaches like this will only drive people indoors, where the risk of transmission is greater.

Others have better ideas. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer in British Columbia, has set an example of highly effective public-health leadership while largely avoiding mandates and police involvement. She has imposed reasonable restrictions with an empathetic approach that sustained the public’s willingness to comply with social-distancing measures. As Henry learned from her experience with Ebola in Uganda, the most effective way to promote healthy behavior during public-health emergencies is with clear communication and support, not punitive measures. Her primary approach to social-distancing recommendations, including parties, has been frequent, compassionate communication with the public, with fines levied only as a last resort. “This is our time to be kind, to be calm, and to be safe,” she regularly reassures British Columbians. As she told The New York Times, “That’s the only way as a community we can get through this without traumatizing people.” Henry is so well loved that a designer shoe was created in her honor.

Compassionate messaging can go a long way toward building trust and supporting healthier behavior, but it’s not the only tool at our disposal. Public-health professionals can use contact-tracing efforts and research studies to understand what drives high-risk behaviors and which interventions would help people forgo those activities. State officials can collaborate with community leaders, especially in hard-hit neighborhoods, to promote attractive alternatives to indoor gatherings. In redesigned outdoor spaces, people can safely exercise, listen to local musicians, watch theater performances, and enjoy food and beverage trucks. The city of Oakland, California, has created miles of “slow streets” where residents can recreate and interact with plenty of distancing, transforming the city into one that’s more walkable, bikeable, and—yes—fun. Permitting to-go drinks from restaurants and bars, and letting people consume them outside with appropriate limitations, could lure partygoers out of their home. In Toronto, loosened rules around licensing of outdoor spaces allowed a beach-themed beer garden to pop up in a parking lot, complete with food from local restaurants and sand, in a neighborhood where few residents have access to private outdoor space. Too hot in the summer? Bring in the misting fans. Too cold in the winter? Set up the heat lamps.

Policing won’t help Americans persevere during this ordeal; compassion and creativity will. Indoor gatherings are not advisable during a pandemic, but scolding and retribution will only impede public-health efforts. If officials want to help people avoid the potential harms of parties, they need to earn the public’s trust as partners who offer scientific and practical advice on how to sustain well-being in a pandemic—not as law enforcers from whom the public will want to hide.