THE GOVERNORS of California and New York, both Democrats, have called for more restrictive social distancing to fight the coronavirus pandemic. They emphasize the need for people to act voluntarily in the interest of the common good. That is the right approach. Government should not strangle the society it is trying to save.

The pandemic is hitting some hot spots hard, including New York and Washington state. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California said more than half his state could become infected in eight weeks if the spread cannot be slowed. All we know about how the virus spreads — through people coughing and exhaling viral particles, or touching contaminated surfaces — indicates that social distancing and avoiding crowds can slow transmission and avert catastrophic overload of hospitals and health-care facilities.

Throngs at bars, restaurants and on the beaches of Florida in recent days set off alarms that perhaps the public was not heeding public health warnings. About one quarter of Californians were already under local “shelter in place” orders when Mr. Newsom issued his demand that people stay home, except for those needed for key infrastructure jobs such as water, energy and communications. Mr. Newsom said he hopes not to have to use law enforcement for compliance. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York called for putting the state on “pause,” ordering nonessential businesses to close and urging workers to stay home but leaving open grocery stores, banks, pharmacies and other businesses. Illinois and Pennsylvania followed suit with similar measures. Asked about a nationwide shelter-in-place order, President Trump reassuringly said on Friday, “I don’t think we’ll ever find that necessary.”

Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, noted that “there are places, regions, states, cities in this country that are being stressed much, much more than the country as a whole,” and said he “strongly supports” the moves. From a public health standpoint, the disruption caused by social distancing is worth it; the sacrifices are temporary and far less painful than thousands of deaths, overrun hospitals and a runaway virus.

But this is every bit as much about human behavior as about public health. It is absolutely essential in the months ahead that political leaders retain people’s trust — not an easy task even in normal times. If the restrictions are draconian, they could boomerang. People may panic or be tempted to disobey. That would in turn threaten further spread of the virus. Political leaders must allow a society to breathe, not only fresh air in parks and playgrounds, but also to go about life as normally as possible, to have access to groceries, banks, pharmacies and other essential services. It is important that leaders retain credibility so that the next time they ask for emergency action, they are heeded.

The word “lockdown” suggests jail. The concept is hardly what the United States needs at this juncture. We need careful, clear public health decisions to guide us back to normal as soon as possible.

Read more: