Reopening makes citizens responsible for public health

Reopening is shifting the responsibility for public safety from leaders and policy makers back onto individuals. Unlike in February, when individuals and governments alike were scrambling to figure out how to combat the pandemic, we now know what to do to limit the spread of the virus. Some governments are simply choosing not to do it. In a recent Washington Post interview, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged the important role that citizens have to play under these circumstances. “What we do as individuals will have an impact on the success or not of getting this outbreak under control,” he said. In other words: Right now, every American has a duty to not take foolish risks.

Of course, people have little choice but to take some risks. Workers whose bosses require them to come in to work will come in. They may need to return their kids to day care to do so. People need to go to the doctor; they need to buy food. Everything else becomes a complex decision tree in which a person has to weigh the benefits of an activity, the state of the outbreak in her area, local regulations, and her own risk factors against—let’s be honest—what her peers think is okay, and what she really, really wants to do.

The longer businesses are open, and the more people see their loved ones partaking in activities that were forbidden a couple of months ago, the more normalized those things will become—even if public-health experts and the media emphasize the risks; even if people know, cognitively, that the risks of transmission haven’t changed much.