The medicine and statistics, and medical statistics, involved with working our way out of our Covid-19 social isolation I'll leave to the physicians, epidemiologists and statisticians. But there's a simpler, more basic element to our current shutdown debate that, in a time of political trench warfare, tends to go unremarked.
The nature of the problem turned up in the last week with a series of protests at statehouses and county courthouses around the country. The rules limiting travel, work, business and social activity and large groups of people have been imposed in most states - there remain a few holdouts - and are going on their second or third weeks, a little more in some places. One Ohio protester, who said she has no worry about contracting the illness, said the whole thing has been hyped (this at a time when cases in the United States topped 700,000 after barely a month of expansion), and the restriction "enrages something inside of you."
The emotional reaction is not hard to understand, and the request the protesters are making is clear enough: Eliminate the rules imposed by various governments - mainly state and local - since Covid emerged.
That is: Just do away with the restrictions so we can all go back to normal.
The desire is perfectly rational. But the people making the demand aren't thinking the situation through.
Suppose a given state immediately dropped its social distancing requirements at this moment. Would things go back to normal?
To begin with, most people do accept the evidence of their eyes and ears and the testimony of the many thousands of people who have or have had Covid-19. They do know that it is a risk, that it is serious and can be fatal, and that it spreads easily when people are grouped together. As long as most of us understand this, and recognize that the illness still is spreading and can easily reach where they live, most of us won't be very eager to jump into crowd situations or mingle with people who mingle with lots of other people.
I hate seeing the businesses and other places I like to frequent in their closed or diminished mode. But even if no governmental orders were in place, I wouldn't be going there, or going there much, anyway. I want to minimize exposing myself to risk of serious illness. When I do, for example, visit a grocery store, I get in and out as fast as I can - no shopping around. Knowing what I know about the virus, I wouldn't have been frequenting restaurant dining rooms even if they were open. That's simple self-preservation. Most people tend to operate that way most of the time.
So most of these businesses that have shut down would have been losing much of their customer and employee base even without any governmental requirements.
Not all, to be sure; some would bull through, exposing people to higher risks. (I just read an article about a nursing home firm in Idaho accused of pressuring employees to work in high-risk environments.) But many businesses, probably a large majority, already were taking safety action before governments required them to. Some of this may have owed to genuine concern about customers, employees, vendors and others; some may have been uneasy about the prospects of lawsuits or other ugly blowback if (all-too-predictable) problems happened. Either way, most businesses would rather not jump on a land mine if they can avoid it, even if the immediate consequences are - as they are for so many - extremely costly. Operating normally under the current conditions would be as risky, and maybe more so, over the longer haul.
Thomas Friedman got at some of this toward the end of his fine New York Times column today: "if this is the future, every business, restaurant, hotel, theater, sporting facility, factory, nonprofit and government office needs to ask itself: What does my business look like when, on the best days, the responsible people coming to my door will be wearing a mask, gloves, distancing six feet apart and volunteering to have their temperature taken before they enter, and the irresponsible ones won’t be? How do I handle that? Whom do I serve? What kind of business will I really have?"
If a governor told all businesses and other organizations in that state, "You all can go back to normal now!" - the reality is that many, probably most, wouldn't, much as they would love to. Not until it's safer than it is now.
And if most customers and other people thought the orders were out of bounds, they wouldn't be very widely adhered to. But most people are following the rules; they do see the point.
Once people - most people, recognizing that some out there never will believe what makes them uncomfortable - perceive that conditions are relatively safe, then likely we will return to some kind of rough normality. The experts in this field caution that this could be a dangerous time, because if that perception runs too far ahead of the reality, the virus will have a terrific opening to strike again. If it does, we'll have another (unfortunate) opportunity to learn our lesson, all over again.
But at least until then, protesting state or local orders is futile and counterproductive.
People who have fully internalized the idea that governments are the source of all problems may see regulation as the core of the problem here. It isn't. The problem is the virus. The problem will be under control, and our normal lives will resume, when the virus is squashed, and not before.