When people are advised that one very difficult behavior is safe, and (implicitly or not) that everything else is risky, they may crack under the pressure, or throw up their hands. That is, if people think all activities (other than staying home) are equally risky, they figure they might as well do those that are more fun. If taking a walk at a six-foot distance from a friend puts me at very high risk, why not just have that friend and a bunch of others over for a barbecue? It’s more fun. This is an exaggeration, of course, but different activities carry very different risks, and conscientious civic leaders should actively help people choose among them.

Stark messaging may also discourage people from taking reasonable precautions. Public-health officials tell people to wash their hands and wear masks. But because the above-the-fold message is “Just stay home,” people may struggle to understand the purpose of these other pieces of advice. If the only truly safe thing to do is stay home, then how should I think about the mask suggestion? Is it a futile gesture, like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound? (In fact, mask wearing and hand-washing are both important steps people can take to lower their risk of getting and transmitting the virus. Neither of these lowers your risk to zero, but they affect it a lot.)

As the economy reopens, it makes sense to communicate a range of risks, and to speak in terms of probabilities rather than in binaries.