The lockdown is over.
Not officially, of course.
Officially, New York’s four-phase reopening process is the order of the day, determining when restaurants can open for outdoor dining or salons and barbershops for haircuts. Many restrictions remain very much in place. Playgrounds are still closed, gyms are still shuttered and houses of worship are still barred from holding full-capacity indoor services.
Unofficially, though, the lockdown is over.
Government orders might have turned the lockdown into a matter of policy, but it was always driven by voluntary behavior. People began staying home and avoiding crowds well before Gov. Andrew Cuomo told them they had to, and now they’re saying they’ve had enough.
If you’ve been outside, you’ve probably observed the same uptick in activity that I have.
I first noticed it over Memorial Day weekend, when my neighbors held a house party, and it’s only increased since then, with ongoing protests against police brutality and systemic racism providing the clearest evidence yet that people are done hunkering down.
I don’t have a problem with the protests, which give voice to matters of urgency and concern.
But I do worry that all of the activity we’re seeing will lead to a surge in COVID-19.
The virus hasn’t gone anywhere, and bringing large groups of people together is still a risk. The virus doesn’t care what the cause is, or whether or not it’s just.
At the protest I observed in Albany last week, a lot of people were wearing masks, but a lot of people weren’t. Social distancing was limited, and not just because of a lack of space.
When you’re caught up in the moment, it’s easy to forget about the pandemic that kept people homebound and isolated for over two months. The demonstrations occurring in cities throughout the country should give us a better understanding of how easily COVID-19 spreads in large, outdoor gatherings.
Perhaps we’ll learn that COVID-19 isn’t as transmissible as feared. Or perhaps we’ll learn that big events fuel the spread of coronavirus.
People can decide for themselves whether they want to protest at possible risk to their health, but we need to be upfront and honest about the risks.
Unfortunately, some in the public health community have decided to let their political views inform their guidance on mass protest in the time of COVID-19.
Hundreds of public health officials - the very same people who have been preaching the gospel of social distancing for the past two months - have signed a letter stating that “as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States.”
The letter is well-intentioned, but I’m uncomfortable with scientists making moral judgments about which causes are worth risking one’s health to support.
Not so very long ago, public health officials voiced huge concerns about the "reopen the country rallies" organized by conservative groups, and they’ve often been downright dismissive of religious groups and their desire to hold services.
At the very least, they owe it to the protestors - and everyone else - to be blunt about the ongoing threat of COVID-19. The support for attending anti-racism rallies expressed in the letter makes it more likely that people will view their advice as ideological, and ignore it in the future.
That’s bad news for those of us who believe that a measured, science-informed approach to COVID-19-related policy is a good idea.
I’m one of those people, but I’m still struck by the seeming arbitrariness of some of the restrictions that remain in effect.
For example: Young people are taking to the streets en masse to protest, but every playground in Albany, where I live, remains closed.
I’ve dutifully kept my son off the playground equipment, but I can’t help but think the time has come to reopen the playgrounds, post some advice on potential risks and let people decide what to do for themselves. Based on what we know right now, the risk seems fairly low: COVID-19 doesn’t spread easily outdoors, or via contaminated surfaces.
I still plan to take precautions to minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19, but I’ve seen a lot of people behaving as if COVID-19 is a thing of the past.
Which is worrisome, because nothing could be further from the truth.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.