I didn’t wait for a stay-at-home order to stop going out.
By the time Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued his executive order imposing sweeping restrictions on businesses and social activities, in mid-March, I had already shelved plans to get together with family and friends. My church had canceled in-person services. My son’s daycare was closed. I was working from home.
My retreat from the world was voluntary – and not at all unique.
The data indicates that people all over America began cutting back on activity and staying home because of COVID-19 long before the government told them to.
“Even in states that imposed stay-at-home orders or closed nonessential businesses relatively early, households and businesses had begun to shift their behavior about 10 days before those orders,” a New York Times analysis noted. “In states that closed later, that shift had come about 20 days earlier.”
On Monday, three upstate regions, including the Mohawk Valley, were cleared to begin reopening, a slow, multi-phase process that will see a gradual lifting of restrictions on different industries, such as construction and retail.
Also permitted, on a statewide basis starting Friday, are “low-risk business and recreational activities” – landscaping and gardening work, sports like tennis and drive-in movies.
Now that the focus is shifting from shutting down to opening back up, I’m curious to see how people respond.
Will they take advantage of their newfound opportunities for fun and relaxation? Will they rush out to drive-in movie theaters? Dust off their tennis rackets? Hire landscaping crews? Later phases of reopening will see bars, restaurants and arts and entertainment venues open back up. Will people go?
The state’s approach to reopening is measured and responsible, but giving businesses permission to reopen is not the same as getting people to patronize them.
The steps outlined in phase one, which include allowing a long list of retail businesses to reopen for delivery and curbside pickup only, are appropriately cautious.
But later phases are riskier, as they inevitably involve allowing people to gather, and while some will no doubt embrace the opportunity to go out and do things again, others will refrain. I know I’m eager for life to return to normal. But that doesn’t mean I’m ready to eat indoors at a local restaurant – though I might consider dining outside – or attend a crowded concert.
Surveys suggest that most people share my caution.
The website FiveThirtyEight, which focuses on opinion poll analysis, reports that “even if businesses reopen, polls suggest many Americans would still choose not to patronize them. A Washington Post/University of Maryland poll conducted April 28-May 3 found that 78 percent of adults would be uncomfortable eating out in a restaurant right now, while just 22 percent would be comfortable. Respondents also said 67 percent to 33 percent that they would be uncomfortable going to a retail clothing store.”
Things might change, though, if states “give the all-clear,” the article noted. “Fifty-nine percent of respondents to an Edison Research poll for Marketplace … said they would be comfortable returning to their normal routine when their state relaxes its stay-at-home order.”
Places that have already eased restrictions – or never imposed stay-at-home orders in the first place – provide a possible clue as to how people might behave as more businesses and organizations open up.
In Sweden, which never issued shelter-in-place orders and allowed businesses and parks to remain open, the economy has still suffered a severe blow, because people elected to stay home.
“According to data collected by Google and Apple, Swedes have cut back on their travel to places like stores and restaurants and decreased their use of transit-like buses substantially, though not as dramatically as their Nordic neighbors in Denmark,” one recent article noted.
Attitudes evolve and behavior changes, and people who felt uncomfortable going out two months ago might feel comfortable going out now. But I suspect caution will remain the order of the day for some time.
We might be reopening, but it will be a long time before things return to normal.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.