The danger of 'it's probably fine'
Something noteworthy has been happening as countries around the world have started to reopen: In many instances, there have not been the resurgent spikes in COVID-19 cases that experts predicted. While coronavirus deniers have rushed to cite this as evidence that the response to the disease was overblown, there is a far more realistic answer — that the vast majority of people are recognizing the danger of the disease and the personal responsibility required to limit the spread, and are continuing to follow preventative guidelines on their own accord.
This is great news on its own; it means weeks of public service campaigns have worked. But without firm guidance from leadership, and with the onus often landing on the individual to decide how and when to follow expert advice, it's also sneakily becoming harder and harder to keep up one's vigilance. How much can a semi-socially-distanced cookout hurt, if you're all outdoors? Will it really be that dangerous to give your friend just one hug when you run into him at the mailboxes? It's probably fine … right? The fact that people are still far from resuming normal activities right now is exactly what is protecting us; but the self-assurance of it's probably fine could be what ultimately undoes all our progress.
One example I've been closely following is the reopening of movie theaters around the country. While admittedly there are not very many new movies to entice audiences to the box office, cinema owners in Georgia, one of the earliest states to reopen, have reported dismal attendance. "The first weekend, 34 people came through the doors" of Vidalia's Sweet Onion Cinemas, Variety reports. "The next weekend, it dropped to 14." Robert Jones, who owns theaters in Vinita, Oklahoma, told Variety it was the same situation for him, with attendance "about 25 percent of what it usually is at this time of year." In other words, whether because of a fear of catching the virus, or out of civic responsibility, people in "reopened" places are still flattening the curve, even when they aren't required to. The data appears to support this: for example, while the transmission of the disease in Georgia hasn't dropped, cases have remained steady, rather than spiking.
The slippery slope, though, will be our ability to keep up our diligence. It's exhausting to try to self-police all the time, particularly as the psychological start of summer with Memorial Day makes us yearn for traditional activities, like cook-outs and camping and going to the beach.
Making matters even murkier, especially as we learn more about COVID-19 and how it's transmitted, is the fact that many of the summer activities we enjoy are, generally speaking, sort of safe — so long as people don't cut corners or slack off on mask-wearing, hand-washing, and social distancing. A recent guide by NPR breaks down the risk level of various summer activities, with the general rule being that small gatherings can be low risk so long as there is no chance of handling the same objects, and so long as distance is maintained from strangers. But all it takes is one beer bottle to be passed from an infected hand to a vulnerable one, or for salad tongs to carelessly go un-sanitized between uses. "It's probably fine," then, becomes an easy way to wave off the inconveniences of concern — until you remember that such a cavalier attitude could mean playing Russian roulette with you and your loved one's lives.
The dark side of this line of thinking is what Mel has termed "f--k it mode." That's when Americans — who, out of entitlement, or boredom, or swagger — decide they don't care about if something is "probably fine" or not and give up trying altogether. As writer Miles Klee put it, "This is where our quiet stoicism runs out and baseless arrogance takes over. F--k it, dude, time to set up the beer pong table." It's why, despite most Americans generally having the decency to accept that minor inconveniences like mask-wearing can save lives, large groups of people still gathered this weekend at places like the Lake of the Ozarks and Venice Beach. Let there be no mistake: No one can rightly delude themselves into thinking there was anything "probably fine" about mingling with hundreds of other out-of-towners in a pool during a global pandemic that has taken the lives of 100,000 of their countrymen.
The increasing sense that the outbreak is fading, and thus that resuming normal activity is probably relatively safe, can be life-threatening in certain tragic cases. Churches that have defied coronavirus shutdowns have become super-spreading sites and resulted in deaths; the resumption of a night club in South Korea, perhaps most emblematically, is believed to have been entirely responsible for a new outbreak in the country. It's tempting to give into the impulse to go back to living like normal because the odds are likely in your favor, but doing so has also had disastrous results.
Even as we continue to learn how to enjoy ourselves in safe ways, it is a mistake to think that we can let our guard down entirely. Yes, many of the things we want to do this summer are probably fine — but what are you willing to risk on that belief?