Margaret and I had such a lovely weekend early this month enjoying autumn color and sipping good bourbon in central Kentucky! To protect ourselves from COVID-19, we wore our masks when we went into shops, we kept away from crowds, and we took our meals outside. This added a little hassle, such as the dinner we didn’t eat until after 9 pm because restaurants were busy, and the breakfast we ate in a misty drizzle. But our good times far outweighed our challenges.
As we drove home we weren’t ready for our good times to end, so we swung through picturesque Brown County in Indiana. We thought we’d stop for lunch in Nashville, the county seat and a charming artist’s colony. It’s full of galleries and kitschy little shops. It was a lovely day, and we were sure local restaurants would have outdoor seating.
We started to feel apprehensive when traffic grew heavy and slow as we approached town. Police directed cars where the highway turned into town, and the main street was choked with cars. I knew a last-resort parking lot on the edge of this little town, so I headed right for it. It was mostly full.
The closer we walked to Nashville’s main street, the more people we encountered. The main street itself was crowded, so we put on our masks. A lot of people walked unmasked despite it being impossible to maintain six feet of distance from anybody. We looked in on a couple restaurants and found gaggles of unmasked people waiting shoulder to shoulder for a table.
That was enough for us. We headed right back for our car and drove on to nearby Bloomington, which wasn’t nearly as crowded. We stopped at a little pub near Indiana University and had a lovely lunch on their patio. After a couple of beers I needed to visit the facilities, so I masked up and stepped inside. There I found nearly every table full of diners.
I’m seeing busy restaurants all over. Margaret and I wanted Mexican a couple weeks ago, so we walked to the Mexican restaurant near our home. It was overcast and chilly, but not too cold to sit on their patio. We were the only ones out there. When I stepped inside to get that table, the din from the many diners inside was so loud I had to project my voice to be heard over them.
The other night we were wrung out after work, so I called in carryout from a nearby restaurant. When I went into the restaurant to get it, I saw that they had removed maybe a quarter of their tables to keep dining parties at least six feet from each other. But almost every table was in use.
I’m sure all of us feel considerable fatigue after eight months of this pandemic. We all very much want life to be normal again. We can do more things safely now than we could in the spring, to be sure.
But crowds and close contact still put us at our greatest risk for COVID-19. The CDC has studied it and reports that people who test positive for COVID-19 are twice as likely to have eaten inside a restaurant than people who test negative.
It’s been a while since we’ve looked at Indiana’s new-case graph. (The last time was in July, here.) We thought things were frightening when cases spiked in April, but that was nothing compared to now.
I’m sure I suffer from more than one cognitive bias when I link crowded restaurants to this dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases. Or maybe the link really is this obvious.
Because of what I do for a living I’ve learned to model risk as the product of likelihood and impact. How likely is the thing to happen, and how bad is it if it happens? Something that is unlikely to happen, but will possibly be really bad if it does happen, is still high risk.
Even though new cases are rising, likelihood is still low that you’ll get COVID-19 in Indiana. Here in Boone County, Indiana, we currently average 154 new cases per week for every 100,000 residents – a 0.154% new case rate. (We have only 68,000 residents, so that’s about 105 new cases a week.) Boone Countuy’s new-case rate is typical in Indiana. Your chance of randomly encountering a contagious person is not terribly high. The less time you spend in public, the more you cut that chance.
But the potential impact of COVID-19 is high. Death isn’t the big worry for most of us — you’re unlikely to die from it unless you have serious health issues already, or are older. People 70 and older make up more than 75% of deaths in Indiana. Add people ages 60-69 and you cover more than 90% of deaths.
But this thing can lay you out for weeks. Consider a young woman I used to work with who I think might be all of 30. Here’s her story of how COVID-19 kicked her ass. And it can have long term effects on your heart and your mind.
I hope I’m preaching to the converted here, but COVID-19 is no joke. You want to avoid getting it.
I hope we can all find the discipline to protect ourselves and each other. Mask up. Stay out of crowds. Don’t eat inside restaurants.