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As a journalist who’s been covering the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve become the reluctant go-to authority among friends and some family looking to clarify (or sanction) their day-to-day routines. “Can I go to the movies this weekend?” asked one friend. “I already have tickets…” Well, I’m not a doctor, but no, I wouldn’t do that. “I canceled my restaurant reservation with a friend this weekend, but can I have her over for dinner instead?” another friend asked. “What if she walks, instead of taking the subway?”
Well, I’m not a doctor. But — according to the available, alarming evidence — it seems to me that if you have to ask for permission to do something you do not absolutely need to do, the answer is probably no.
You’re asking because you’re hoping you’ll be told what you want to hear: that everything is ultimately fine for you, and it’s okay to live life as you normally would. But nobody can promise you that. Everything is not, ultimately, fine.
This isn’t quite an “all or nothing” scenario, in that some social restraint is definitely better than none. Public-health measures like social distancing, and vaccines, depend on the collective. This is really that straightforward. The more of us that do the right thing, the fewer people will get sick and die.
I think people are looking for loopholes because living like this is scary and miserable. No one currently alive in the United States has been through anything like this before. People generally want to view themselves as exceptions to the rule, especially when the rule is that anyone who contracts COVID-19 can die. We think: Well, I don’t have symptoms, so I probably don’t have it. My friend isn’t coughing, so she’s fine. But we know we can carry the coronavirus without symptoms. We can pass it without symptoms too. To pretend any one of us is exempt is delusional at best and selfish at worst. Anyone can get this. Tom Hanks has this. He’ll probably be okay because he was in Australia when he got sick, and they have free testing there. We don’t.
Current public-health estimates project that, without intervention, between 160 million and 214 million people in the U.S. could be infected with COVID-19. Given what we know about severity and fatality rates, that means that 2.4 million to 21 million people in the U.S. could require hospitalization. Two-hundred thousand to 1.7 million people could die. One million deaths is currently the most common estimate.
A million people. Just like that.
To prevent these scenarios, drastic action is required, for everyone. Not everyone can work from home. Not everyone can avoid public transit. But everyone — everyone — can cancel their social engagements this weekend.
Asking if you’re allowed to have your friend over is to be in denial that we’re struggling our way through a pandemic. Our denial is understandable. It’s self-involved. It’s human. This is brand-new to so many of us. We are, right now, learning how to live through this, together. We’re learning what patriotism might look like in the worst of circumstances.
So I guess my own question for anyone asking permission right now is this: is it worth it? Any concession you make for yourself is a risked exposure not just for you, but your friend, and anyone else you might pass along the way. If you get sick, or they do, you might not know for sure how it happened, but you will wonder.
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