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Opinion What ‘essential’ really means in the stay-at-home era

Playground equipment is wrapped in crime scene tape in St. Louis. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

So what do we really need in a world turned upside down?

As local governments hand down stay-at-home orders from Jackson, Wyo., to Washington, the word of the day is “essential.” What were merely suggestions to businesses to shut down and people to shut in are now firm directions, with fines attached. What’s still permissible depends on what’s indispensable. And what’s indispensable — well, some might agree to disagree.

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Hospitals, clinics and pharmacies are the easy ones, because this is a pandemic and because humans require care even in the best of times. Exempting veterinarians is also an easy call; someone has to be around to pump the dog’s stomach after he eats several chocolate bars while Dad is trapped in a remote work crisis. Social services have to remain, too.

Then there’s infrastructure. We’d rather not emerge from hibernation to discover that the nation has literally decayed around us; metaphorical collapse is rough enough. And while keeping the trains running on time might feel less pressing to those whose morning commute is now from the bedroom to the breakfast counter, people still have to get where they’re going. They just have to do it six feet apart from each other.

Food is stickier (especially when hoarders have snatched up all the paper towels at Safeway). Obviously we’ll wither without sustenance, and obviously not everyone has the time, money or flour supply to spend 14 hours a day baking ancient-grain sourdoughs or simmering beef stew, so grocery stores must keep their doors open. But we won’t wither without a three-course, $45-per-person prix fixe takeaway meal from a Michelin-starred restaurant, and that’s what at least one D.C. mainstay among the many outlets exempted from to-go closure requirements is offering.

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And dry cleaning? What does any white-collar office-worker even need to put on pants for these days?

Some might question the essential-ness of liquor stores, too, except for making the perfect quarantini — though plenty of folks probably feel as though they need a drink amid this mess, to say nothing of severe alcoholics who might go into withdrawal if suddenly cut off.

Considerations like these are a reason to ask the question: When we say “essential," what do we mean? There’s what individuals need to survive physically, and what they need to survive mentally, or emotionally, or spiritually, or however else you refer to what’s in our heads and hearts. There’s what a city needs to survive economically, which is more or less a material measure, and what a community needs to survive, which has something to do with mutual trust.

We’re figuring out which bricks we can yank out of Maslow’s pyramid without the whole thing toppling. It’s a way of announcing what we value too much to give up, and what we don’t. Our values are hardly objective, so the outcome may vary from state to state or town to town — depending in part on politics. Gun stores can stick around, but goodbye to abortions in Republican enclaves, unless judges keep coming to the rescue. Marijuana dispensaries get the green light in Los Angeles, but goodbye most everywhere to libraries and bookstores, to playing basketball with a group of friends, to eating peanut butter straight out of the jar and, of course, to handshakes and hugs.

These goodbyes matter. Everything feels so flipped over today that it’s easy to believe we’ll never turn right-side-up again, that this is our new always. Yes, we may return to some kind of normal, but that normal is likely to be a little bit different. Many of these changes will stick. Businesses that go bankrupt without a bailout can’t just bounce back; behaviors forged in months of isolation may linger. It’s possible that after this ends, we’ll all manage to make do with less than we did before.

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Or perhaps there’s another option, or at least another hope: that we’re sacrificing what doesn’t feel essential right now because it’s the only way to recover everything later.

There’s a contradiction, of course, in the distancing that has become doctrine for responsible citizens these past few weeks. Going it alone, it turns out, is actually the most social thing we could possibly do — the most civic-minded and the most communitarian. It’s not that we don’t care about handshakes and hugs. It’s that we do care. Hugs are too important to give up forever, but the only way to protect the people we want to hug and to hug them with abandon again someday is to clasp our hands behind our backs for a little while longer.

Maybe when this is over, we’ll keep more of a distance than we did before, because we’ve had so much practice. Or maybe we’ll have learned that what we really need is each other.

Read more:

Bill Gates: Here’s how to make up for lost time on covid-19

David Yamamoto: A plea from rural America: Urban covid-19 refugees, please stay home

David Von Drehle: Beyond the bad coronavirus numbers lie the good ones. They’re every bit as powerful.

Joseph G. Allen: Don’t panic about shopping, getting delivery or accepting packages

Michele L. Norris: Our children are watching us closely now

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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