Yesterday, we were treated to the spectacle of a Fox News propagandist covering a New Jersey gym, which had opened in violation of stay-at-home orders. The whole idiotic episode highlights one of the problems COVID-19 poses when we’re trying to get people to take it seriously.
First, the reality is that everyone who uses that gym will be fine…until they’re not. As Yogi Berra would have put it had he been an epidemiologist, the best way to avoid getting an infectious disease is to avoid people who are infected. That is, right now, the odds of a suburban area off the beaten path (tourist season hasn’t started yet in Wildwood, NJ) having very many COVID-19 positive people is low. Additionally, a fair number of the infected will be at home (though not the presymptomatic people) and some of the infections will be within a household, so the number of contacts with an infected person will be limited.
That gym will be fine, until someone who is sick decides to use it, at which point there is a non-negligible chance of a local outbreak (like the Provisional IRA used to say, it only has to get lucky once).
At a larger scale, over the next few months, as various locations in the U.S. loose restrictions, what I think we’ll see is a patchwork of local outbreaks, that have a high degree of randomness. Luck will definitely be a player in all of this, as an infected individual happens into an ‘open’ community–and if things break wrong (for the humans, not the virus), then there’s an outbreak. In other words, the frequency is so low and patchily distributed that many people haven’t been exposed to it at all, and won’t be for some random length of time.
Politically, this will make it difficult to mount a serious response or reimpose restrictions, since the effects will be localized. I don’t think it’s that likely that an entire state will suffer what New York City did. Instead, there will be flareups, and these flareups will disproportionately affect the people our political system–and many middle and upper middle class people–doesn’t give a shit about. The American Carnage will be bad, but not enough to convince people to do what needs to be done.
That said, it’s possible late September and October will be grim, but that’s a subject for another post.