It has been a summer of compromises, a season of bending the rules. If I wear a mask and I keep my distance, I can go for a walk with a friend. Hand sanitizer is a bulwark that allows my kids to play on an otherwise empty jungle gym. I believe the backyard has magical properties that will, probably, make it just safe enough to see people and talk to them. In the sun and fresh breeze, we give each other air hugs from six-ish feet away.
Meanwhile, my hair grows, untrimmed, past my clavicle. When my friend, in some ways far more stringent on her social distancing and mask wearing than I am, told me about going in for her first cut since March, I winced involuntarily. I assume it’s roughly the same face that she made when I confessed my masked trip to a clothing store to buy some summer dresses. Both of us know the safest thing — the thing most likely to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — would be to stay at home, alone. But we know we won’t do that now. Can’t do it. The idea of sticking with the safest thing has become almost as unthinkable as indulging in the danger of a movie in a theater or a drink at the bar. But in between those extremes, life has become a sticky bog in which we wade through evidence and convenience, hoping we’re stepping on solid ground.
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We can’t live like we did before coronavirus. We won’t live like we did immediately after it appeared, either. Instead, we’re in the muddy middle, faced with choices that seem at once crucial and impossible, simple and massively complicated. These choices are an everyday occurrence, but they also carry a moral weight that makes them feel different than picking a pasta sauce or a pair of shoes. In a pandemic that’s been filled with unanswerable questions and unwinnable wars, this is our daily Kobayashi Maru. And no one can tell us exactly what we ought to do.
Not that there haven’t been attempts at providing structure.
Right now, you can go online and find multiple charts that will visually categorize what were once the activities of daily life by risk level. Some of these charts are evidence based, compiled by experts and (in my opinion) genuinely helpful. I particularly liked the one designed by epidemiologist Saskia Popescu and bioethecist Ezekiel Emanuel because it lays out not just the risk levels of various behaviors — getting a haircut, visiting the dentist, buying a new shirt — but also the underlying factors that can make an activity more or less risky. In general, research has shown that indoors is riskier than outside, long visits riskier than short ones, crowds riskier than individuals — and, look, just avoid situations where you’re being sneezed, yelled, coughed or sung at.
But the trouble with the muddy middle is that a general idea of what is riskier isn’t the same thing as a clear delineation between right and wrong. These charts — even the best ones — aren’t absolute arbiters of safety: They’re the result of surveying experts. In the case of Popescu’s chart, the risk categorizations were assigned based on discussions among herself, Emanuel and Dr. James P. Phillips, the chief of disaster medicine at George Washington University Emergency Medicine. They each independently assigned a risk level to each activity, and then hashed out the ones on which they disagreed.
Take golf. How safe is it to go out to the links? Initially, the three experts had different risk levels assigned to this activity because they were all making different assumptions about what a game of golf naturally involved, Popescu said. “Are people doing it alone? If not, how many people are in a cart? Are they wearing masks? Are they drinking? …. those little variables that can increase the risk,” she told me.
Golf isn’t just golf. It’s how you golf that matters.
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Those variables and assumptions aren’t trivial to calculating risk. Nor are they static. There’s different muck under your boggy feet in different parts of the country, at different times. For instance, how safe is it to eat outdoors with friends? Popescu’s chart ranks “outdoor picnic or porch dining” with people outside your household as low risk — a very validating categorization, personally. But a chart produced by the Texas Medical Association, based on a survey of its 53,000 physician members, rates “attending a backyard barbeque” as a moderate risk, a 5 on a scale in which 9 is the stuff most of us have no problem eschewing.
When we first noticed this apparent contradiction at FiveThirtyEight, some of us joked about how maybe a Texas barbecue wasn’t the same thing as a picnic in New York or Minnesota. Ha ha, everything’s bigger in Texas, even the guest list. But, come to find out, yeah, that’s actually exactly the deal.
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“There’s not an ounce of social distancing. And different sauce,” said Mark Casanova, a Dallas palliative care specialist and member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force, summing up what makes a Texas barbecue different. When he rated a backyard barbecue, he was thinking of a crowded event, where people roam from indoors to out and back again, and masks are scarce. When he was ranking risk, he was trying to think about real-world behavior, not necessarily the way to do each activity most safely. “It’s like going to a bar and saying, ‘Well, I’ll just sit by myself.’” Casanova said.
Experts like Popescu and Casanova have focused on harm reduction — the same philosophy that leads thousands of American gym teachers to demonstrate putting condoms on bananas. We know, from basic understandings of human behavior, that people are going to do a thing (have sex, that is, not put condoms on a banana). So how can we help them be safer?
But we’re used to safer sex — we’re not used to safer daily existence. The muddy middle is frustrating not because we’ve never found ourselves in this type of quagmire before, but because the scale of the swamp is so vast and because, just yesterday, it was a garden.
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We are faced with too many choices — not just what to do, but how to do it and when and where. The stakes are high, 140,000 people are dead in the U.S. and death rates are starting to climb again. And because of those stakes, we’ve assigned a morality to all these choices — something that psychology researchers have shown leads us to frame things as “all good” or “all bad” and lose sight of the gray areas all around us. We’re all bogged down and floundering, questioning our own goodness while we arch our eyebrows at our friends and argue over whose patch of muck is really solid ground.
In some ways, it would be easier to just not care, to be one of those people who see no difference among a park, a swamp and the rim of an active volcano, to be one of those people who is mentally living six months ago. Then I could cheerfully traipse from my backyard to a neighbor’s driveway and then on to a dark corner booth somewhere with no worries. No stress. It would hardly even be a decision. Maybe I could even get angry about stores and cities setting up rules and see something like a mask requirement as a violation of my freedoms. Then I could be oblivious to the far more terrible freedom of the muddy middle — where everything is a choice, and they’re all mine to make and to live with.