Where We Are Now

It’s officially summertime. Beach posts are back on Instagram. Friends are hanging out in person again, sometimes even hugging. Yet, you’ve seen the numbers. As of June 28, the U.S. has surpassed 2.5 million COVID-19 cases. Despite making up less than five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. currently accounts for over a quarter of total coronavirus cases and deaths worldwide. 

At home, the last few months have been turbulent for other reasons as well. Protests, from anti-lockdown to Black Lives Matter, have erupted across the nation amid frantic local and federal responses to the coronavirus and its recession. The lack of consistent and timely federal assistance has left the nation in pieces, with each state taking matters into their own hands.

This patchwork response to the pandemic has created its own myriad of problems: reopenings and easing restrictions in certain states are sending a misleading signal of “safety” to Americans. Businesses and individuals are relaxing their guard just as the U.S. sets yet another single-day record for new cases. As the country continues to reopen in the face of uncertainty, it is ever more imperative that Americans exercise self-discipline, rather than grow complacent, by responsibly following public health guidelines.


Mask-Wearing And Social Distancing

Americans love a good debate. However, the excessive politicization of public health measures, especially mask-wearing, is ultimately a serious impediment to the fight against COVID-19. A meta-analysis of 172 studies concluded that person-to-person transmission was “lower with physical distancing of 1 m[eter] or more,” and that face masks were likewise effective in reducing the risk of infection. Although these findings cannot be treated with absolute certainty due to the lack of randomized trials, new studies are corroborating that mask-wearing, “in conjunction with social distancing, quarantine, and contact tracing,” is the most effective measure in preventing further spread of the virus. Additionally, a University of Washington model predicts that with universal mask-wearing, the U.S. could prevent 33,000 deaths by October.

Yet, the debate rages on. Videos exposing social distancing violations are all over social media. Residents doubt their governor’s legal authority to require mask-wearing. While Americans remain divided on the issue of social responsibility, the age of quarantine is here to stay. The sooner we accept and practice universal mask-wearing and social distancing, the sooner we can beat the virus. This cannot wait; the ultimate cost of our delay has been and will continue to be thousands of lost lives.


Testing, Reopening, And Recent Surges In Cases

Since mid-June, over ten states have recorded their highest averages of new coronavirus cases. Notably, Arizona, Florida, and Texas now account for more new cases than the former hot-spot states, New Jersey and New York. Whereas the curve is beginning to plateau in places like Massachusetts, where mask-wearing is required by executive order, the number of cases is rapidly climbing in Southern and Western states.

The reasons for these surges may seem complicated. As states begin to reopen, more people are venturing outside and navigating public spaces. With services back in business, people are starting to interact with those outside of their quarantine circle, increasing the risk of viral transmission and subsequent infection. Both President Trump and Vice President Pence have also blamed increased testing for these alarming numbers. However, reopening variables and increased testing account for far less than the fact that the coronavirus is spreading faster. 

Epidemiologists point out that the positivity rate, which measures the percent of daily positive tests out of total tests in a given region, has yet to decrease at the national level despite increased testing, indicating that the virus is still spreading. As Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo of Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 Testing Insights Initiative explains, the fact “[t]hat states are finding more cases relative to the amount of tests they are conducting provides the strongest rebuttal to the administration’s assertion that case numbers are rising because we’re getting better at finding cases through increased testing.”

This spread can be traced back to Memorial Day weekend, when large gatherings and parties brought vacationers together in violation of social distancing. Taking the incubation period into account, the surge in coronavirus cases coincides with Memorial Day gatherings, particularly in Southern and Western states that have been quick to reopen but reluctant to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing at the same time. The virus is still out there. Americans cannot let their guard down at this crucial moment, because failure to follow the rules will not only put more lives at risk, but also halt and reverse reopening timelines.


The Deal With Reverse Reopenings

With new cases on the rise, several states have considered halting, or even reversing, their reopening plans. California Gov. Gavin Newsom and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have warned about shutting down parts of the economy again should cases and hospitalizations continue to increase. In particular, Cuomo expressed frustration with “rampant violations” of social distancing and the more than 25,000 complaints of New York businesses and individuals ignoring reopening guidelines.

Most recently, Texas and Florida announced on June 26 that they are reimposing restrictions to contain outbreaks of the virus. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis backtracked on his reopening plans after health officials reported a 77 percent increase in average new cases from last week. He also cited “widespread noncompliance” with social distancing as a reason for the reversal. Reopenings cannot move ahead safely without public adherence to social distancing and other measures, including hand-washing and mask-wearing. Until then, states will continue to find themselves moving back and forth on reopening phases. With each state issuing different guidelines, Americans must take it upon themselves to practice safety measures, otherwise reverse reopenings will devastate the local and small businesses we seek to protect.


Persuasion Versus Compulsion

Although legislation may seem like the most efficient way to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing, Americans are more likely to comply by persuasion than by compulsion. Lindsay Wiley, director of the Health Law and Policy Program at American University, explained to NPR that “heavy-handed mandates can often backfire.” People who are already “skeptical of wearing masks” will likely “double down” when confronted with stringent public health guidelines. 

Therefore, governors and local health officials should continue educating the public about these safety measures and encourage residents to abide by these guidelines. Individuals can also help promote these norms by wearing a mask in public, even if their state has yet to recommend or require them. A balanced combination of persuasion and compulsion may have the best chance of improving compliance with public health guidelines. 


The (Long) Road Ahead

So, when will COVID-19 go away? Many hope for a miracle solution that would eliminate the virus once and for all. However, that is unrealistic. Experts believe that even with a successful vaccine in use, the coronavirus will likely stay with us for decades. That is a frightening future for people to consider, but a necessary reality that America needs to embrace. Dr. Sarah Cobey, an epidemiologist at the University of Chicago, poses this question about COVID-19: “How do we live with it safely?” The answer may just be this simple: wear a mask in public, practice social distancing, and listen to our public health experts. In doing so, the country will hopefully see a sooner end to the age of quarantine. We must each do our part; otherwise, we will continue to see the dangerous upward trend in cases and deaths.