The absence of definitive guidance on what society should be doing during the coronavirus pandemic led us to a path of individual choices.
When Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds proclaimed the disaster emergency on March 9 few of us knew what to expect. Sadly, three months later that continues to be true.
Our social behavior is developing around risk avoidance, some of it informed, some less so.
Jacque made us facial masks on the sewing machine. I carry three of them in a plastic bag on the car seat to use when in public. Most frequently I wear them while shopping for groceries, and at the drug store, convenience store and at medical appointments. When I return home I wash my hands, change clothing, and if I’ll be inside the rest of the day, take a shower. I wash the masks after each wearing.
At the farm I don’t wear a mask because the crew has been self-isolated together since the pandemic began. The risk of me being exposed there is minimal. Since I’ve been tested, limit my activity, and maintain social distancing, I seem unlikely to bring it in. They developed a social distancing method of share delivery and are doing everything they can to avoid getting sick. An outbreak would be disastrous for them, their customers, and the business.
I don’t wear a mask to the state park trail and very few people I’ve encountered there do. Because it is outside and there is room enough to maintain social distancing the risk of contracting COVID-19 there seems minimal. I avoided going to the park for the first two months of the pandemic yet the need for exercise outweighed the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
With more people home during the day the number of contacts with neighbors has increased. I don’t wear a mask while I’m with them because these encounters are pop-up activities of short duration. I have yet to see anyone in the neighborhood wearing a mask. The letter carrier and parcel delivery drivers are a source of potential contamination although a necessary service as our number of trips off the property has decreased. We sanitize packages and let them sit on the landing before opening.
Our main approach to risk management is reducing activity away from home and social distancing when we are out and about. It serves us well in that neither of us has been sick since the pandemic began. I don’t believe our experience and behavior is much different from any Iowan who takes the coronavirus seriously.
Clearly the pandemic will be of longer duration, so how should risk of COVID-19 spread be managed? There is little guidance from our government and public health guidance seems so universal it’s hard to figure how it impacts us in our actual lives. As a former career transportation and logistics professional I’m familiar with risk management. The pandemic is just one more layer added to risks already managed.
When I worked at the home, farm and auto supply store I got sick a couple of times a year. I caught something at work that caused runny nose, coughing, congestion or some combination of those ailments. The need for income outweighed potential health risks. When we entered the pandemic I reassessed and reversed my approach. I haven’t been sick since I walked out the door for the last time on April 2.
My point is we take risks in everything we do. During the coronavirus pandemic we must get better at doing so because the lives of our family and everyone with whom we come in contact depend upon it. The question never was “should we open up the economy?” The better question is what are the conditions upon which we can re-engage in society? How do we know it is safe enough to send our children to school, return to paid work outside the home, and participate in mass recreational events like concerts, sporting games, fairs and local festivals? If anything, we assumed those activities were safe before the pandemic, even though we knew, subconsciously at least, that safety has a broad spectrum of risk and no human activity is completely safe.
What are reasonable risks? Lacking appropriate guidance from experts each of us is making up our own rules, our own trade-offs between risk avoidance and participating in life. There is no going back to life before the pandemic. How do we restore enjoyable aspects of our lives with less risk of contracting COVID-19?
I don’t have definitive answers except that we are on our own. We are doing our best and for the time being, until we figure this out, that may be the best we can do.