Social distancing is now the most rigid and punishing orthodoxy of the Western world. Terrified of being labeled “grandma killers,” governors who are baby-stepping their way to reopening their economies are taking pains to assure the public that their phases include millions of six-foot gaps. If some could keep their economies closed all year to suppress COVID-19, one suspects they would.
The neglected problem with social distancing and isolation, aside from the increasingly sketchy scientific justification, is that these rules aren’t just severely affecting the economy; they cram our interactions onto the internet. This two-dimensional substitute can’t capture the fullness of physical reality, much less interpersonal dynamics. All the richness of family and community in the same physical spaces and all the cultural milestones that frame and color our lives were sucked out of our world in a matter of days, with little urgency or seriousness behind the promise of their return.
Some of us have enjoyed unprecedented quality time with our kids and spouses, free from extra work distractions and busy schedules. We’ve called loved ones we haven’t spoken with in months. But these are only silver linings.
Humans Require Social Interaction
Humans simply aren’t designed to live in social isolation long-term, even when they are fortunate enough to start earning paychecks again. The workplace is only one source of human connection among many. Even if all businesses are technically allowed to restart, social distancing and isolation are untenable for the long term. Citizens and local governments should not stand by while the social bonds that make up our communities disintegrate.
I’ve seen dozens of articles on “Phase One” reopenings that either omit the fact that gatherings over a handful of people are limited or strongly discouraged, or bury it several paragraphs down, as if it’s a trivial detail. Such is the disconnect between the way the media write and talk about the pandemic and how we really understand our lives in its midst. When we’re honest with ourselves, when we tune out the narratives and propaganda, we realize we’re unwilling to accept the long-term consequences of these moratoriums.
Under such rules, there are no weddings where brides throw bouquets and best men give embarrassing toasts. There are no in-person church services, no ball games or state fairs where families can go on a summer afternoon. There are no tearful and raucous family reunions, no proms, no beer leagues, no neighborhood barbecues, no class-wide birthday parties, no church-sponsored baby showers, no bachelorette parties, and no funerals. Just having a friend over for dinner would be impermissible in Washington, Michigan, and New York.
These are things we will sacrifice for weeks or even a few months. But an alarming number of governors claim COVID-19 is such a grave threat to their constituents, they must put every aspect of “nonessential” life on hold in spite of their states’ steadily downward-trending curve.
Even if we’re allowed to go to work, how long can we tolerate repressing our human need to gather together in celebration, mourning, and fellowship? Will we refuse to shake hands, hug, swing toddlers up in the air, and sit shoulder to shoulder for six months, eight months, two years? How long is your patience to delay your wedding or your child’s baptism in the face of downward-trending Wuhan virus deaths?
Of course, gatherings risk greater exposure, and maybe sporting events and conventions aren’t reasonable at this stage. But for the rest of our activities, it’s time to rely on good hygiene, sanitation, and masks in some cases (such as sitting together during religious services) — measures that don’t limit the interactions that feed our souls. If you don’t want to risk exposure, you can stay home.
Americans Need More than to Get Back to Work
This is why those who rightly see the shelter-in-place orders as no longer necessary shouldn’t just hammer away at the talking point that America needs to “get back to work.” We need to get back to normal, which includes so much more than work.
If nobody fights for the social parts of our lives that are “nonessential” and non-work-related, then optimistic governors chiefly concerned with jump-starting the economy won’t bother pushing back on the conventional wisdom that says moratoriums on gatherings are worth it. Worse, risk-averse governors focused on bottom-line coronavirus numbers will keep prohibitions on through the summer, only to use flare-ups in flu-like illnesses in the fall to justify continuing strict distancing measures or further lockdowns.
In Washington, for instance, Gov. Jay Inslee claims his plan is “a thoughtful balance of our state’s health and economic needs.” He doesn’t even address social needs as a concern. His reopen plan states that in all phases, people should stay at least six feet apart. Until Phase Three, gatherings are limited to five people, which is less than half the attendees of our weekly dinners with extended family. This callousness will degrade our society as much as the economic meltdown and the virus itself. We aren’t cogs in an economic machine. We’re people, designed to live in fellowship with others. It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity.
It’s Time to Reopen Our Social Lives
While celebrities assure us we’re all “together at home,” video calls aren’t a substitute for real-life togetherness. They cannot replace the snuggles, tickles, and kisses between grandparents and their grandbabies or the in-person eye contact that makes you feel truly seen by others. They don’t capture the subtle changes in atmosphere as people shift their postures and move their hands, clueing you in to how they really feel. Even the most introverted people need this kind of human interaction like plants need sun.
Businesses that aren’t in hotspots should reopen in spite of the lockdowns, but it will take more than brave business owners or economic reopen plans to return us to normal. It will take average citizens coming together responsibly and declaring they don’t just want their jobs back — they want the rest of their lives.
Councils of cities where the virus is well under control should lift their cities’ moratoriums on social life despite state orders. Police departments should refuse to break up voluntary gatherings of people. So long as the virus continues to spread responsibly below hospital capacity (the original goal of “flatten the curve”), most social interactions can and should resume even in the absence of widespread testing.
Nursing homes are an exception, in which case visitors should have priority access to testing to ensure they aren’t spreading the virus to the extremely vulnerable. The elderly don’t just deserve safety, they deserve the company of the people they love.
In our social fabric, religious, cultural, and social gatherings are all threads woven through, not tassels or buttons to be pulled off to meet some other goal. They are parts of the culture that nurture our lives, as much as any job, house, or the food on our tables. For those who cherish all it means to be human, we cannot settle for a long-term normalcy that is anything less than full restoration of our rich tapestry of human connections.