Josh was irritated, but not because of me. If indoor dining couldn’t be made safe, he wondered, why were people being encouraged to do it? Why were temperature checks being required if they actually weren’t useful? Why make rules that don’t keep people safe?

Across America, this type of honest confusion abounds. While a misinformation-gorged segment of the population rejects the expert consensus on virus safety outright, so many other people, like Josh, are trying to do everything right, but run afoul of science without realizing it. Often, safety protocols, of all things, are what’s misleading them. In the country’s new devastating wave of infections, a perilous gap exists between the realities of transmission and the rules implemented to prevent it. “When health authorities present one rule after another without clear, science-based substantiation, their advice ends up seeming arbitrary and capricious,” the science journalist Roxanne Khamsi recently wrote in Wired. “That erodes public trust and makes it harder to implement rules that do make sense.” Experts know what has to be done to keep people safe, but confusing policies and tangled messages from some of the country’s most celebrated local leaders are setting people up to die…

It isn’t just New York; in states across the country, local officials have urged caution and fastidiousness. But those words can seem tenuously connected, at best, to the types of safety measures they’ve put in place. In Rhode Island, for example, residents are prohibited from gathering with even one person outside their household, even in the open air of a public park. But inside a restaurant? Well, 25 people is fine. Hire a caterer? You’re legally cleared to have up to 75 outdoors. The governor’s executive order merely notes: “The lower attendance at such events, the lower the risk.” (The Rhode Island governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)