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Unlocking Our Lives

Most of the challenges leaders and citizens face as we navigate the Coronavirus outbreak derive from having to make decisions in the face of so much uncertainty.

Might those who have already been infected still be vulnerable to reinfection? Are people more than six feet apart in a pond or swimming pool vulnerable? Will the curve, even if presently flattening, steepen the minute we distance ourselves from social distancing?

Decisions that need to be made in the face of such uncertainty include how much (and how quickly) we reopen the economy, and our lives, given what we know at any given point in time.

Unsurprisingly, fights have broken out over decisions to tighten or loosen restrictions on movement and activity. By fights, I’m not talking about assaults (some involving firearms) over wearing masks and keeping a safe distance that have been in the news (bad as those are). Rather, I’m talking about arguments for and against lifting (or tightening) restrictions that are not really arguments (which, as you now know, are cooperative enterprises) but are actually fights attempting to change the status quo without changing anyone’s mind.

Portraying government restrictions as tyranny is one fight narrative we are seeing. Similarly, attempts to brand those arguing against severe restrictions as being part of a shadowy conspiracy are unlikely to persuade anyone who does not already subscribe to a certain world view.

If you want to see what an actual argument looks like regarding reopening society, The Boston Globe ran an editorial urging cautious lifting of restriction on people gathering outside over the coming summer months. That editorial, reproduced below, has all of the hallmarks of a genuine attempt to convince, rather than condemn or rally one’s ideological allies against perceived enemies.

What makes the Globe opinion piece so convincing? To begin with, it starts with a realistic assessment of where we are with regard to the virus risk, one that takes into account successes (such as flattening the curve enough so that our health system has not been overwhelmed) while not minimizing future dangers.

The piece then goes on to make recommendations about what should happen next (making this a deliberative argument – the most effective kind), specifically the reopening of outdoor facilities such as beaches and campgrounds to allow people to enjoy the summer, even as they continue to exercise caution in the form of mask wearing and social distancing.

The argument has a strong logical core, which can be translated into:

Premise 1: Coronavirus continues to be a threat, one that will likely continue for a prolonged period of time

Premise 2: Current safety measures, such as social distancing and masks, have helped limit the damage caused by the virus

Premise 3: Those measures have the potential of damaging the physical and mental health of people exercising caution by staying indoors

Premise 4: Reopening public spaces can be managed responsibly by limiting access to numbers capable of keeping a safe social distance

Premise 5: New rules regarding the opening of public spaces can be enforced to ensure they do not lead to unsafe gatherings

Conclusion: We should cautiously allow more access to public spaces during the summer months

The strength of this argument derives partly from the fact that it is an inductive argument in which the premises provide strong support for the conclusion. But the argument is also strengthened, ironically, by the caution it urges throughout.

Premises are backed by statements from health experts, or appropriately qualified to take into account all that uncertainty we continue to face. And the conclusion it draws is narrow, encouraging limited opening of certain public spaces (not reopening the entire economy or removing restrictions on social gatherings) with a sense that such a decision can be reversed if it ends up leading to increased infection rates.

Here we have an example of how careful, qualified arguments calling for limited ends can be far stronger than more certain ones urging sweeping changes, something to keep in mind in an era when certainty (even if uninformed) is often confused for strength.

Given that I can't seem to find anything wrong with this argument, I'm going to assign it a full 5/5 dumbbells.

Original Editorial

Let’s go outside – The Boston Globe

By The Editorial Board - May 6, 2020

The glorious weekend weather delivered a long-overdue reminder of how joyful spring and summer in New England can be — and how strange, frustrating, and sad this particular summer is likely to be.

The novel coronavirus, which has already killed more than 4,000 people in Massachusetts, almost certainly won’t be gone. Epidemiologists warn that if COVID-19 appears to recede in the coming months, it could be a temporary reprieve before another wave of infection hits in the fall and winter. This means that much about our current way of life will remain in effect this summer. We’ll need to keep our distance from other people and wear masks.

But given these precautions, many outdoor activities that are currently prohibited or discouraged by towns, cities, or the state should be allowed to resume. Sweeping restrictions ought to give way to a more case-by-case, facility-by-facility approach.

Going to the beach and campgrounds, playing tennis or shooting hoops with your own family members, golfing with friends, and picnicking with other families at a distance can be crucial activities for physical and mental health, and they do not necessarily create dense crowds or other conditions in which the coronavirus is likely to spread. “If managed properly, the risks can be low,” says Joseph Allen, assistant professor in the department of environmental health at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

For example, beaches, campgrounds, and other outdoor recreation spots could be opened on a limited basis. Parking might be limited to, say, 25 percent of capacity to start, depending on the site, and bathrooms could be restricted to allow no more than one person or family at a time. Or admission could be restricted by requiring timed-entry passes obtained in advance. In all these cases, the message would be: Use of this site is acceptable if people can responsibly keep their distance. And if they don’t, the privilege can be taken away.

“During a pandemic, I would hesitate to say anything has zero risk,” says Dr. Richard Besser, who is a former acting head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the current CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a member of a panel of health experts advising the governor of New Jersey. “But I would say sitting 8 feet away from somebody on a beach is pretty low risk.”

When the extensive spread of the coronavirus became apparent in Massachusetts and other states in March, a blanket ban on many activities was the right call. Preventing the potential exponential growth of the virus — “flattening the curve” of the burden on hospitals — required a clear and urgent directive to stay home as much as possible.

But things are a bit different now, and not only because people have been feeling isolated and cooped up indoors. The worst-case scenario of overwhelmed hospitals has been avoided. Although it’s still imperative to keep the curve from rising again, it should be possible to remain vigilant while letting people do more outside of their homes. After all, the concept of social distancing has now been firmly ingrained. More than 93 percent of people in a recent statewide poll reported that they are adhering to “very strict” or “pretty strict” social distancing. Wearing masks has taken hold too, albeit to a lesser extent. (Since there seems to be some confusion about the governor’s rule: Masks are required outdoors unless you can keep more than 6 feet from everyone else.)

And despite the understandably widespread fears about an infected person coughing or sneezing the virus well beyond 6 feet, scientific evidence so far supports the conclusion that wind and other factors in the open air make it unlikely that an infectious dose will be transmitted that way. “I am not aware of any research that specifically contradicts the premise of the low risk [of] transmissibility outdoors — provided social distancing is observed,” says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University. “So while going jogging in a park or relaxing on a beach at a distance from other beachgoers is low risk, an outdoor concert where there are crowds would likely be much riskier, depending on crowd density.”

Reducing restrictions this spring, when so many Massachusetts residents continue to die from COVID-19 every day, might seem premature. But it’s exactly because the coronavirus will likely remain a threat for some time that the rules for public conduct should become more nuanced. For months to come, residents will need to cooperate with restrictions on their freedom. That’s a sacrifice the vast majority of people are willing to make — for now. To maintain the public’s trust in public health guidance over the long haul, those rules can’t come to seem rigid, indiscriminate, or arbitrary, and the state needs to show that it is willing to change them as our scientific understanding of the virus evolves and as social distancing and mask-wearing habits take root.

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