Not Taking Social Distancing Seriously Enough

Too many people still don't understand the idea behind 'flattening the curve.' That includes our President.

President Trump has declared a national state of emergency. So have several states. Schools across America are closed for the next few weeks. And many companies are allowing telework at an unprecedented rate. We still may not be doing enough.

Certainly, Trump himself isn’t.

A report in yesterday’s WaPo is headlined “Trump is breaking every rule in the CDC’s 450-page playbook for health crisis.” It focuses on rules CDC wrote in the aftermath of the post-9/11 Anthrax scare for crisis communication.

The fundamental principles behind good public health communication are almost stunningly simple: Be consistent. Be accurate. Don’t withhold vital information, the CDC manual says. And above all, don’t let anyone onto the podium without the preparation, knowledge and discipline to deliver vital health messages.

There’s a whole lot more there but OTB readers likely need no convincing on this front. When I saw the headline yesterday, I assumed it was about all of the ways Trump is ignoring the best practices for social distancing, with all the handshakes and meet-and-greets.

The NYT gives a case study of one such instance with “On a Saturday Night in Florida, a Presidential Party Became a Coronavirus Hot Zone.”

It was a lavish, festive, carefree Saturday evening at Mar-a-Lago a week ago in what in hindsight now seems like a last hurrah for the end of one era and the beginning of another. In the days since then, the presidential estate in Florida has become something of a coronavirus hot zone. A growing number of Mar-a-Lago guests from last weekend have said they are infected or put themselves into quarantine.

A week later, the White House physician announced on Saturday night that the president had tested negative for the virus, ending a drama that played out for days as Mr. Trump refused repeatedly even to find out whether he had contracted it after exposure to multiple infected people.

The result came less than 24 hours after the White House put out a misleading midnight statement saying there was no need for such a test at roughly the same time the president by his own account was actually undergoing one in deference to public pressure.

But either way, the Mar-a-Lago petri dish has become a kind of metaphor for the perils of group gatherings in the age of coronavirus, demonstrating how quickly and silently the virus can spread. No one is necessarily safe from encountering it, not senators or diplomats or even the most powerful person on the planet seemingly secure in a veritable fortress surrounded by Secret Service agents.

There’s a whole lot more but, again, you get the idea.

The President’s poor communication and personal example in this crisis may well explain why Americans writ large aren’t taking the crisis seriously enough.

NYT columnist Charlie Warzel urges “Please, Don’t Go Out to Brunch Today.”

[M]any younger Americans seem unfazed by the pandemic. Though they may be working from home or practicing social distancing during the day, it appears American night life is continuing without much interruption.

In Seattle, where one hospital is reportedly preparing for Northern Italy levels of infection and already running low on some supplies, bars in the Capitol Hill neighborhood have been full of people. On Friday evening, a Twitter search for the phrase “the bars are packed” yielded hundreds of tweets from cities like Baltimore; Columbus, Ohio; Los Angeles and New York City. On Saturday in Chicago, one reporter tweeted a photo of a line around the block for a St. Patrick’s Day bar crawl at 8 a.m.

While the federal government has issued some guidance for older and high-risk Americans, the administration has offered little definitive advice for how stringently low-risk people should isolate. And so it seems that for many it’s business as usual.

Continuing the weekend tradition of packing the bars is selfish and reckless during this pandemic. It will speed up the spread of the virus, increasing the suffering for older and more vulnerable people and for the medical workers who will be caring for them. Though the virus appears dramatically less fatal for those under 50, younger, healthier people can still contract the virus, not show symptoms and infect at-risk populations.

Asaf Bitton, the executive director of Ariadne Labs in Boston, wants us to know that “Social Distancing is Not a Snow Day.” He recommends several steps that government officials and individuals need to take to flatten the curve. One in particular shows the magnitude of what he’s asking:

2. No kid playdates, parties, sleepovers, or families/friends visiting each other’s houses and apartments.

This sounds extreme because it is. We are trying to create distance between family units and between individuals. It may be particularly uncomfortable for families with small children, kids with differential abilities or challenges, and for kids who simply love to play with their friends. But even if you choose only one friend to have over, you are creating new links and possibilities for the type of transmission that all of our school/work/public event closures are trying to prevent. The symptoms of coronavirus take four to five days to manifest themselves. Someone who comes over looking well can transmit the virus. Sharing food is particularly risky — I definitely do not recommend that people do so outside of their family.

We have already taken extreme social measures to address this serious disease — let’s not actively co-opt our efforts by having high levels of social interaction at people’s houses instead of at schools or workplaces. Again — the wisdom of early and aggressive social distancing is that it can flatten the curve above, give our health system a chance to not be overwhelmed, and eventually may reduce the length and need for longer periods of extreme social distancing later (see what has transpired in Italy and Wuhan). We need to all do our part during these times, even if it means some discomfort for a while.

I must admit, I’m not yet fully complying.

As noted in a post last Sunday, my wife and I followed our custom of going out to dinner the night before. We haven’t done so since and are unlikely to for awhile. We did get takeout for the family last night, which is less risky but still against Bitton’s advice. (But the restaurant still had plenty of patrons dining in. They were not separated by six feet.)

Moreover, while several of us were dubious of the wisdom of it, we nonetheless attended a long-scheduled work-related social gathering. And, while some awkwardly avoided it, most still shook hands and hugged people in greeting. It’s going to take a while for intellect to overcome instinct in that regard.

Nor have I canceled playdates. My 16-year-old stepdaughter was already bored yesterday after an unexpected school closure Friday and I actually urged her to invite a friend over for the afternoon. And my 8-year-old has a playdate with a longtime friend from our old neighborhood this afternoon; I’m not going to cancel it.

Dan Drezner encapsulated social distancing really well in a column last week explaining “Why the coronavirus response seems so outsize.”

What is being asked of healthy people — people who even if they contract the virus are unlikely to get too sick — is to nonetheless change their behavior in costly ways so they reduce the risk of spreading the virus to more people. Or as Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies professor Johannes Urpelainen put it with respect to travel cancellations: “If you are a healthy adult, you are not canceling your event or travel or conference because of yourself — but because of the more vulnerable people who will suffer if you become a vector.”

Of course, all these cancellations and disruptions will have real-world economic effects. These cannot and should not be ignored, and measures need to be taken to ameliorate those effects. Still, the reason so many precautions are being taken is because health is more of a public good than is commonly realized. Making small sacrifices is a social tax that the healthy can and should pay so the vulnerable do not die.

I don’t think we’ve grasped that yet as a society. My local school superintendent, an intelligent and highly-educated man, hasn’t figured it out. That may well be true of a lot of military leaders. While the Secretary of Defense has issued draconian travel restrictions, most of us are still going about our-day-to-day work lives on the basis that we’re in a low-risk population and the mission must go on.

Some of this is simple human nature. People aren’t going to inconvenience themselves unless they’re forced to do so or really, really understand why it’s necessary and embrace the rationale.

The fact that our national leadership has been so abysmally poor is a major detriment in achieving that understanding. Indeed, because Trump, his supporters in Congress, and the right-wing media complex have followed his lead in downplaying the crisis until too late, it has been nearly impossible for expert advice to take hold.

Relatedly, the best advice keeps changing, creating a lag effect. We’ve gone, in the span of a week or so, from “avoid gatherings of 1000 people” to “cancel playdates with the kid next door.” We’re just not wired to change our hard-wired behaviors that quickly.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mikey says:

    I don’t think we’ve grasped that yet as a society. My local school superintendent, an intelligent and highly-educated man, hasn’t figured it out.

    Word through the FCPS employee grapevine is the superintendent got a call from Governor Northam last Thursday evening.

  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    Some aspects of social distancing will be easier to implement than others. We have long time neighbors who will be moving out of state in the next couple of weeks. These are folks we’ve been friendly with for over 15 years and we’ve had tentative plans to take them out for dinner Tuesday for a few weeks. It’s quite likely these are people we won’t see again so a good-by evening would be nice, but I also know that he views this virus as exaggerated and likely not taking even the most rudimentary precautions.

    A dilemma presents itself.

  3. mattbernius says:

    It was really weird having my last day at work on Friday be under social distancing. Saying goodby to wonderful colleagues without being able to touch was a really frustrating emotional experience. It was made even more strange by the fact that MFJ has decided to go more or less remote starting this Monday. So everyone was dealing with the fact that they would not be in each other’s physical presence for a while.

    This has also already impacted my time with Code For America. The national summit, to be held this past Weds-Fri, was cancelled the week before (session are going to be held online over the coming months via conferencing software). I was supposed to be out for a week in San Francisco to do my onboarding — but that’s considered non-essential travel and was cancelled.

    The first Clear My Record state I’ll be working with is New Jersey. The kick-off is a week from Wednesday. That may still be considered essential because a key actor on the state side retires this spring. However, if I do end up going there (which at this point I don’t think will happen), I am not allowed to take any form of public transportation. Thankfully, it’s only a 5.5 hour drive from Rochester NY for me.

  4. mattbernius says:

    Also, I think this explainer article from the WaPo, featuring a series of animated visualizations, is the best thing I’ve seen on the topic of social distancing and its importance.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’m not a social person. My wife is so not a social person she makes me look gregarious. Our pre-Covid time was spent 95% at home. Now we’re looking at 99% at home. I had to go to CVS to pick up meds that could not legally be delivered, and that was it for the last week.

    We did go out to restaurants, maybe once a week, but other than that the only real change has been a near-ICU level of caution bringing delivered packages, meals, etc… into the house. I regret having to cancel dinner with a Paramount exec, that sucked, but OTOH my wife got to cancel a two and a half week book tour that would have involved Oklahoma, among other places, and that’s all to the good.

    We are naturally paranoid, anti-social and obsessive-compulsive. Our time has come!

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    health is more of a public good than is commonly realized. Making small sacrifices is a social tax that the healthy can and should pay so the vulnerable do not die.

    I don’t think we’ve grasped that yet as a society.

    Ya think? At a time when the ACA is and always has been under attack by Republicans everywhere?

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Meanwhile: Ex-Obama official warns US health system faces ‘tsunami’ over coronavirus

    Andy Slavitt, formerly Medicare and Medicaid administrator, tweets outline of threat after ‘Trump’s months-long denial’

    “We’re about to experience the worst public health disaster since polio,” said Dr Martin Makary, professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, speaking to Yahoo Finance.

    “Don’t believe the numbers when you see, even on our Johns Hopkins website, that 1,600 Americans have the virus. No, that means 1,600 got the test, tested positive.

    “There are probably 25 to 50 people who have the virus for every one person who is confirmed. I think we have between 50,000 and half a million cases right now walking around in the United States.”

  8. Liberal Capitalist says:

    We’re officially hunkered down.

    We bought supplies weeks ago, work has suspended travel, we live on 5 acres bordering open space.

    My wife deals with social anxiety, so we are very used to limited contacts. I’ve worked remote all my life, so transition is transparent.

    This week I will find out if last week’s travel has already made this moot.

    Let’s see how capitalism deals with 2020 being a mulligan.

  9. senyordave says:

    I read an article last night that talked about social distancing. The author made it clear that absent a vaccine social distance is the only effective means of prevention. This is not prevention like a vaccine because social distance only reducec the odds of getting the virus, but it still is by far the best method out there.
    The paradox, according to the author, is that using social distancing to the extreme will work well, but to many people it looks like overreacting. Hence you have the Fox idiot parade acting like we are a society of snowflakes because we (horror of horrors) listen to EXPERTS.
    Trump downplayed this because 1. he figured large numbers of infected hurts him politically, and 2. social distancing hurts the economy (conventions cancelled, vacations delayed, people may delay large purchases).

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    If you have elderly neighbors, don’t forget them. For some it is lonely during the best of times. These aren’t the best of times.

  11. Kathy says:

    Humans are prisoners of habit.

    Some years ago I attended a wedding in another state. The festivities went on for days, with various engagements for dinners, lunches, and such. I had a cold then, which I didn’t want to spread. So despite having a runny nose, and a tissue in my hands at all times, I had to parktake of handshakes, hugs, kisses, despite my warning that I was sick.

    I’m sure I passed my cold on to dozens of people.

    Serves them right.

  12. Paine says:

    I’m an introvert so social distancing is my usual MO anyway. A lot of my job can be done from home so if our office does close down I can stay productive.

    I’ve seen gas stations with lines of cars. Our local market is out of TP and running low on other staples (flour, sugar, etc.). I overheard their staff saying the people were coming down from Spokane to buy this stuff. It’s nuts.

  13. Jen says:

    We are naturally paranoid, anti-social and obsessive-compulsive. Our time has come!

    This is me also! I have also been WFH for around a decade now as a freelance writer so really little changes for me. My biggest concern right now are my parents, who are the entire way across the country (they are in AZ, I’m in NH). My father is in his mid-80s and has long been cavalier about rules applying to others and not him (he’s also a Fox News viewer, draw your own conclusions on that). My mom has had several health scares in the past couple of years, including a pretty serious bout with pneumonia, and she has a weakened immune system. I have no idea how seriously they are taking things. I’m also worried about my MIL, who has had health problems. She lives near to my BIL & SIL, and my SIL is nowhere near grasping the severity of our current situation. It is frustrating.

  14. Michael Reynolds says:

    I have adult kids, a MIL with dementia at a home in Richmond, VA, and my healthy father in Oceanside. The weird thing is war-gaming what to do in the event the kids get sick or either of the parents. We’re both over 60, my wife has asthma and had pneumonia in the past, so the default setting of, ‘let’s hop a plane and help out,’ is off the table. The only useful thing we can do is open the bank of K and M and offer funds.

  15. Gustopher says:

    One of my new coworkers is very excited about all the great travel deals — I’m glad we are all telecommuting now.

    Also, we have this:

    Tim Eyman, the initiative promoter leading early polls to be the Republican candidate for governor this fall, spent Saturday rooting for a political rally of 250+ people to “stick our finger in the eye of Jay Inslee.”

    In an email blast to supporters, Eyman flouted public health restrictions and advice on slowing the spread of coronavirus, saying “251 is the # of patriots I hope will join me @ Oak Harbor today. I’m bringing a 6-pack of Corona!”

    Tim Eyman is a horse’s ass. (Alas, that initiative was struck from the ballot)

  16. Mister Bluster says:

    Against public health advice, Devin Nunes urges people to go to pubs as coronavirus spreads
    Rep. Devin Nunes on Sunday urged people go out to local pubs in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, a recommendation that runs contrary to advice a federal health official made the same morning.
    Coronavirus is spreading in Nunes’ San Joaquin Valley dsitrict.

  17. reid says:

    The meek shall inherit the earth.

  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @reid: …in parcels 6 feet long and 3 feet wide, if I recall the rest of the quip correctly.

  19. grumpy realist says:

    Illinois has just shut down sit-down dining until the end of March. The ironic thing is, it’s the high-level gourmet restaurants that will be the most heavily clobbered–a lot of the standard restaurants near where I live already do a lot of take-out, to the point where such a shut-down will be painful but not fatal. I’m already looking for some spare change in my budget so I can support my local eating places a bit more.

  20. Gustopher says:

    @grumpy realist: Seattle also shut down. Retail stores have to also let fewer people in.

    America will change. What comes out on the other side of this is going to be very different than what we know, at least for a while.