Recently, while on delivery for my current DoorDash gig, I found myself in the tiny waiting area for carry-out orders at La Torre Taqueria, a small — yet excellent — Mexican restaurant in Ypsilanti. A table with a large glass barrier separated the employees from the waiting area, where two men were also waiting for their food. While the waitress was busy preparing our orders, one of the two men mindlessly stepped a few feet closer to the other, leaving about three feet of space between them. Despite the man’s requests that he move further away from him again, he refused to move, claiming that it was the other man’s fault for standing where he was. He argued that his need to talk to the waitress, which he could have done from any position in the waiting area, was more important than the other man’s request for the CDC recommended six feet of personal space. Ultimately, the other man was trapped in the corner of the waiting area by someone who was not respecting his space amid a pandemic.
Admittedly, I can’t assume the man’s political leanings from the few minutes I spent observing the interactions between him and the man whose space he invaded. However, it is safe to assume that he isn’t taking the social distancing orders as seriously as he should. To give him the benefit of the doubt, there is a lot of misinformation in the media surrounding the effectiveness of social distancing, especially in the conservative media. Some of the ideas that the media has been promoting include that the death tolls are inflated and that social distancing guidelines do more harm by preventing society from building herd immunity. This is causing Michiganders, as well as many other Americans, to lose faith in not only their government but also the public health experts trying so desperately to convey the severity of the COVID-19 and the need for social distancing.
The widespread misinformation and political bias are nearly as dangerous as the virus itself, causing so many Michigan residents to blatantly ignore stay-at-home orders, social distancing and mask-wearing policies. In fact — despite an “A” rating back in March when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer first signed the Stay Home, Stay Safe order — Michigan’s social distancing score has fallen to a “D-” based on the Unacast “social distancing scoreboard” human mobility data. Impatience with the pandemic and the everyday reality of stay-at-home orders combined with political backlash has caused many to relax their social distancing efforts long before they should. This, in addition to the political tribalism that is wreaking havoc on our country, is putting those who are following the guidelines in a difficult position — and the pandemic has only deepened this divide.
Those of us upholding the guidelines and restrictions are left to wonder: as we begin to open the state’s economy again, how can we enforce social distancing to prevent a second wave? Having police departments enforce social distancing by threatening arrest wouldn’t be an option because that policy would be too authoritarian and dangerous for minorities. As we’ve seen in New York City, this leads to disparities between communities, as Black communities are disproportionately punished for disregarding the current restrictions. The recent unjust act of police brutality resulting in George Floyd’s murder displays the racism and prejudice that Black Americans and other minorities already face when interacting with the police. If we arrest anyone who won’t wear a mask and practice social distancing, Black individuals and other minorities would continue to be persecuted disproportionately, landing in crowded jail cells which would inevitably defy the mandates and facilitate the spread of the virus. Fortunately, police departments are encouraging people to stop reporting those who are breaking social distancing guidelines by calling 911. Instead, they are directing people towards their local public health agencies, which consider changing community behavior part of their expertise.
Evaluating this situation as a public health student, the best path forward seems to be a comprehensive, apolitical effort to normalize social distancing and mask-wearing to contain COVID-19. This would require local, state and federal-level public health agencies to start an educational campaign that would explain the coronavirus, its rate of transmission and how social distancing, mask-wearing and other restrictions are our only true defenses until a vaccine is developed.
By creating easy-to-understand videos containing this information and having influential figures promote them through social media and on television commercials, we can begin to normalize these measures to continue to reduce the spread of coronavirus. Additionally, communities across Michigan can implement a version of the civilian-based “public health corps” being created in New York City, in which civilians are trained to monitor their neighborhoods to politely encourage social distancing and mask-wearing, as well as providing masks to those who don’t have one.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the partisan divide in this country. Because of this, we cannot allow Michiganders to associate social distancing, public health restrictions and mask-wearing with a political party that they may be opposed to. Instead, we must take action to make pandemic-related guidelines something that everybody understands and implements. We must remind our family, friends and neighbors that wearing a mask and staying six feet apart isn’t a threat to our individual liberty, but rather a sign of respect and concern for the safety of the public.
Elayna Swift can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* This article has been updated to reflect recent events.