Yet it seems increasingly certain many of us will be in the same position as the residents of Georgia within the next few weeks or months.
Yes, people — by large majorities — tell pollsters they support the continued strict social distancing that has shut down huge swaths of the economy and tossed tens of millions of people into sudden unemployment. But the same polls often find limited patience for prolonging the restrictions. In one recent poll released last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 1 in 6 said they had no more than a month of strict social distancing left in them. The largest share (37 percent) said three months from the day they were questioned was the limit. The shutdowns are increasingly difficult — economically, emotionally and logistically.
We want to shelter in place, but as the weather has gotten warmer, people are less likely to stay home. Almost a quarter of Americans visited with family or friends last week, up from 1 in 5 the week before, according to a poll conducted by Axios and Ipsos. This past weekend, beaches in Southern California and parks in New York City were crowded with people, many of them less than six feet apart. “Quarantine fatigue,” researcher Lei Zhang told NBC, describing a fall-off in social distancing efforts observed via cellphone data.
It’s easy to scold, but we are also social animals: People are people. Combine our abrupt isolation with sudden economic fears and life-or-death health worries, and you’ve got a petri dish of misery.
Parents are struggling with both child care and ludicrously inadequate online classes. Work-life balance, for those lucky enough to be able to work at home, is all but defunct. Internet network provider NordVPN says Americans lucky enough to still have jobs and ones that likely permit them to work at home, are putting in three more hours a day. (I don’t doubt it. I wrote this sentence at 11:44 p.m.) People are desperate to blow off steam.
Unemployment, at a decades low earlier this year, is now on track to break records in the other direction. And job loss is a very bad thing. Work doesn’t just support us economically, it gives our lives meaning, too. Long-term unemployment — that is, unemployment lasting longer than six months — leads to lifelong lower earnings and a higher death rate. It’s associated with increases in drug use, child neglect, depression and suicide. For a child, if a parent is unemployed for a lengthy period of time, it often means poorer long-term educational outcomes.
So alcohol sales are soaring. In hard-hit New York City, domestic violence-related murders are significantly above the numbers at this time last year. (There was another one earlier this week in nearby Jersey City, N.J. A pregnant restaurant owner was murdered by her partner who went on to commit suicide.) Calls to suicide and mental health hotlines have increased by multitudes.
It seems almost certain that pressure to reopen will grow. But it’s likely that the perfect world, the one where we can reopen with full confidence that we will all be safe, will not exist — at least not within the time frame that we need. Thanks to President Trump, we are leagues behind on where we need to be to responsibly begin the process. We still lack anything resembling an adequate number of diagnostic tests or protective masks. Individual state efforts cannot fully compensate for a failed federal response.
We will almost certainly know within a few weeks whether Georgia was simply a New York City waiting to happen — or if by luck of geography, lack of density or simple timing, it is leading the way to get back to normal life. But make no mistake: Soon we will all need to take Georgia’s potentially fatal gamble.