We all understand the concept of a budget. We have a certain amount of money and our spending has to stay within that. How far the money goes depends on where we live and what we do with it.
It’s the same with a coronavirus budget. The amount each person can “spend” varies depending on the level of risk for that individual and those in their immediate household. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has outlined specific criteria for who is at highest risk for worse outcomes from covid-19. This is additive, so the older someone is and the greater the number of certain medical conditions they have, the higher their risk and therefore the lower their coronavirus budget.
For a financial budget, the next step would be to include the expenses that one can’t go without, such as rent and utilities. The same applies for the coronavirus budget: What activities are essential? Many people must return to work. Some must take public transportation to get there. Doctors’ visits might also need to be done in person.
Next comes those things you value the most. I saw a patient in his 50s with diabetes and asthma whose trips to the gym keep him physically and mentally well. His gym doesn’t have an outdoor option, but there are certain hours when he can maintain a six-foot distance from others. Working out there entails some risk, but since this is his most treasured activity, he goes twice a week anyway — with the understanding that he is using up the discretionary part of his budget. He wouldn’t also go get a massage, or attend an indoor birthday party.
Where you live is the single most important determinant of how much more you can fit into your coronavirus budget. It’s akin to cost of living. Two people can have the same size budget, but one of them can do many more things if they live in an place with a lower infection rate. Someone living in Hot Springs, Wyo., might go to the gym five times and have dinner with extended family every night and face the same weekly cumulative risk — exhaust the same size coronavirus budget — as a person in Miami who gets a haircut and makes one trip to the grocery store.
This determination is also dynamic; residents in areas such as New York that have substantially reduced their infection totals could do much more with their virus budget now than they could in March.
The concept of the coronavirus budget works at the community level, too. How far a given municipality’s budget can be stretched is determined by the amount of virus present. And just as a city or town prioritizes as it makes a financial budget for its operations, it should define its essential businesses and the entities that must be in operation to support them. The more virus that is present, the fewer entities can resume their activities. Using this prioritization, schools and day care will likely be high on the list, whereas bars and nightclubs will be deemed less essential. Those activities that have the potential to create the highest risk and therefore consume the largest portions of the budget should also be the last to return — think indoor mass gatherings like concerts and rallies.
Finally, there’s also a temporal issue at play: The more virus a community can suppress now, the further its budget will go in the future. This is like saving now to reap rewards later. The inverse is also true. Reopening too soon results in surges of virus, which ends up shutting down more businesses and restricting individual activity. Very high levels of virus will result in economic stagnation, continued school closures and many individuals unable to venture outside their homes. Small budgets all around.
This concept of a coronavirus budget is far from a perfect analogy; we can’t quantify exactly how much risk a particular activity has, for example, or predict with certainty what will happen if the budget is exceeded. And of course you could spend extremely conservatively — come in way under budget, so to speak — and still encounter the virus and become infected. But our new normal demands new ways of thinking. As individuals and communities, we are all going to need to keep an eye on our bottom lines.