These public orders don’t seem to be operating off a clear-eyed understanding of what this disease actually is. So let’s review: The SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads most efficiently among unmasked adult speakers who spend time together in close, unventilated indoor spaces. The virus can also spread through nonverbal activities. Sneezing and coughing obviously produce virus-encased globs of spit, and even heavy breathing—especially during a run or a set of pull-ups—can spray aerosolized droplets that can linger in the air before slipping inside a person’s nose or mouth. The virus does not seem to spread reliably via surfaces. Put simply, COVID-19 is mostly a talking disease—one that could be brought to heel with universal mask wearing, a national campaign that emphasizes quiet in public spaces, and harsh laws about indoor gatherings.
None of this is breaking news. We’ve known most of it for a while. In the spring, a raft of CDC studies—from a Chinese restaurant, a Korean call center, and an American choir practice—made it clear that talking, laughing, and singing in close quarters for many hours is the perfect storm for a super-spreader event.
The epidemiological evidence was never that complicated, and neither was devising a sensible national strategy to get us through the winter.
- If viral aerosols from talking are the most common vector of COVID-19 transmission … we should encourage universal mask wearing, social distancing among people from different households, and quiet in public spaces.
- If these aerosolized particles spread easily in unventilated indoor spaces … we should shut down and bail out indoor businesses that naturally invite crowding and talking, such as bars.
- If symptomatic individuals don’t just talk but also often cough and sneeze … we should create a national quarantine system to separate them from their families and a contact-tracing system to identify potentially infected individuals and ask them to isolate.
- If a large number of infected people will be asymptomatic … we should invest early in a mass-testing apparatus to quickly identify silent carriers.
- If, no matter how well we respond, this pandemic is going to last for a while … we should encourage people to reclaim normalcy by spending as much time outside as possible, while still stressing the importance of mask usage and social distancing when gathering with those outside of one’s household.
Read: Sorry to burst your quarantine bubble
This sort of straightforward, rules-and-reasons approach would treat citizens like they’re intelligent people who care about the motivations of public-health laws. Instead, we’ve gotten a lot of bad rules with equally bad or nonexistent justifications.
Federal health guidance has oscillated between being a vacuum and being an epistemic horror show. In the absence of federal leadership, many major cities are restricting outdoor gatherings, despite their low risk of transmission among young children and ambulating adults, even as they permit indoor activities with a much higher risk. Imagine if the U.S. announced a new war against automobile casualties, and we watched California ban all transmission technology, leading to millions of confused and angry homebound residents, while North Dakota took out all its traffic lights, leading to a redoubled epidemic of car deaths. That’s essentially what we have today—a clueless seesaw between overly restrictive and overly accommodating policies. The laboratories of democracy have become specialists in reactive ad-hocracy, as hospitalizations spike to an all-time high.