Some Threats Just Keep Coming in Waves

COVID seems like a new problem, but Americans know how to raise and lower their guard when circumstances change.

A person wearing a mask walking in the airport
Mario Tama / Getty

Ideally, Americans would be able to raise their guard as each new coronavirus wave sweeps over the country and ease up when it recedes. In practice, we haven’t yet figured out how to prepare for future COVID-19 waves that come and go—and that might keep doing so for some time.

After a burst of vaccine-fueled optimism last spring, the Delta variant prompted governments and businesses to slow their reopening plans. The waning of the milder but hyper-infectious Omicron variant, which as recently as late last month was still claiming more than 1,000 lives a day, finally prompted even COVID-cautious areas to let indoor mask mandates expire. Now the United States is relaxing fast, just as another version of Omicron is prompting a new round of precautions in other nations. Seeing the laid-back American reaction, The Atlantic’s Katherine J. Wu described the potential surge as a “so what? wave.”

The fear that school closures and mask mandates, once lifted, can’t easily be reimposed surely helps explain their persistence even in periods when hospitalizations and death rates have been low. COVID may be a new disease, but our past experience with other threats—such as terrorism after 9/11—reveals something that should hearten COVID hawks: People can keep up a baseline level of caution for years, even after precaution fatigue sets in, and will go along with new safety strictures if a specific, well-defined threat materializes.

If anything, the initial precautions enacted in response to an extreme threat usually have a way of sticking around. In crisis management, this is known as the “ratchet-up conundrum”: Adding safety and security measures in response to a newly revealed vulnerability is easy, but these precautions are challenging to ratchet down because officials hesitate to assure the public, for fear of being proved wrong, that time and changing circumstances have reduced the threat to zero.

In 2007, when I became the homeland security adviser to the newly elected Massachusetts governor, National Guard troops were still stationed outside the state’s one nuclear plant. In the hours after the 9/11 attacks, governors had deployed the Guard to such facilities across the country to reassure Americans that these high-profile targets, which had already been difficult to access without special credentials, were being made even harder to attack. You might think that ending the deployment six years later would take only the stroke of a pen. Trust me: It wasn’t simple politically. Only after holding dozens of community meetings over 18 months and drawing up a detailed “withdrawal” plan were we able to end the National Guard’s term at the plant. Every other state soon followed. Because of similar dynamics, the hand-sanitizer stations that sprouted up everywhere early in the pandemic, before officials and corporate executives fully understood how the new respiratory virus spread, probably aren’t going away anytime soon.

Safety measures can be dynamic—their stringency goes up and down. Right after 19 terrorists hijacked and crashed four planes on 9/11, air travel completely stopped; it reopened cautiously in subsequent days and weeks. The flying experience then was slow and laborious, and most travelers didn’t quibble with the long waits. Soon after, in December 2001, another terrorist tried to set a plane on fire using explosives in his shoes, leading to a shoe-check requirement for many travelers. In the ensuing years, travelers got used to new procedures—and figured out that, contrary to the initial guidance after 9/11, you didn’t really need to get to the airport two hours before your flight. Security tightened again in 2006, when British authorities reportedly thwarted attempts to blow up planes with liquid explosives. Initially all liquids were prohibited on flights; then there was a prohibition of any liquids in amounts greater than 3.4 ounces. That rule, still in effect on paper, has been loosened in practice over time, so American travelers no longer find themselves furiously shoving small shampoo bottles into clear plastic bags. Meanwhile, in the decades since 9/11, screening technology has gotten better, and innovations such as Global Entry and, later, TSA PreCheck gave relief to frequent travelers, who are the most burdened by heightened security requirements.

Notably, security procedures have been adjusted in response to the public mood and to balance terrorism prevention with other practical considerations. In the summer of 2016, understaffing at the TSA, combined with dismal sign-ups for precleared security programs, led to long airport-security lines and a massive political backlash. The Obama administration didn’t just tell travelers to endure long waits for the public good; they hurriedly hired more screeners, bought more equipment with help from airlines, and launched an aggressive campaign to reduce backups by enrolling more people in PreCheck.

The threat from a virus differs from the threat of terrorism in countless ways. Most people fly only occasionally; not many Americans work at nuclear plants. In contrast, most people spend many of their waking hours in congregate settings. That COVID restrictions potentially affect everyone’s daily life helps explain why airport-security measures are proving far more durable than mask mandates. The FAA can make rules for the entire aviation system, while states, local governments, and the private sector all have roles in determining COVID policies.

But some basic dynamics still apply in both situations. First, a generalized worry about a safety threat—whether it’s terrorism or COVID-19—can’t sustain the initial level of public vigilance forever, as people’s cost-benefit calculations shift. Keeping up a precaution such as a mask requirement in schools, for instance, has what many people judge to be a nontheoretical downside. Meanwhile, most Americans have obtained some immunity through vaccination, infection, or both; adults who remain unvaccinated after being offered free shots can change their mind anytime; effective treatments are becoming available for people who get infected; and high-quality protective equipment is available far more widely than in the brutal spring of 2020. Death counts, though still depressingly high, are lower than they were two years ago, despite society being largely open.

Second, an emerging threat can justify the imposition of new restrictions, or the restoration of existing ones, if it is both grave and well defined. Should a new variant prove immune to existing vaccines, or if local hospital systems cannot care for infected patients in a future wave, then a change could be justified. This is why CDC guidelines leave open the possibility of bringing mask recommendations back if hospitalizations dramatically intensify. Appropriately, those recommendations kick in when imminent danger to the local health-care system is demonstrable; infection levels alone no longer provide sufficient information to warrant far-reaching, community-wide mandates. To guard against the ratchet-up conundrum, any new or reinstated restrictions should automatically lift when the numbers improve. Decisions on restoring precautions could come sooner rather than later. A month after lifting Philadelphia’s indoor-mask requirement, the city’s health department announced that COVID levels were rising again in ways that could soon lead to the policy’s return.

The U.S. still has much more work to do in other areas, such as addressing the needs of the immunocompromised. Getting a vaccine approved for young children will ease many families’ minds as well. Any set of policies that we as a society adopt will never be perfect, and they will always be a work in progress. Still, the past shows that—even if Americans don’t shift policy instantly or with scientific precision in response to changing threats—we do know how to adapt to changing circumstances. COVID remains a fresh trauma, but we already have experience in raising and lowering our guard as circumstances dictate.