It’s not time to return to normal no matter how much you want it

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.

Nashville, IN
Shops in Nashville (2017 photo)

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.


39 responses to “It’s not time to return to normal no matter how much you want it”

  1. Gerald Greenwood Avatar

    I hope America makes the right decision next week. Note: this comment is uncontroversial!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I hope we make the least wrong decision.

      1. Gerald Greenwood Avatar

        That’s the calculation we make every time we vote.

  2. Jen Avatar

    Yes! Thank you for this. I sometimes feel I’m in the minority when I see friends posting pictures of networking groups meeting in person or “girls night out” at local restaurants. We are still staying home and not even ordering carryout that often unless they have a drive-thru or curbside pickup. My office isn’t even fully open yet, with only about 20% opting to work in-person vs. at home.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I feel like my wife and I are in a minority too. It’s hard to watch what feels like the rest of the world returning to normal — we want to, as well! It’s hard to keep saying no.

  3. Ben Cotton Avatar

    I’m with you. I want so badly to just sit in a restaurant on a Sunday morning eating a good, greasy breakfast. But there’s no way I’m going to do that under the current circumstances. It’s so frustrating that those of us who are taking it seriously are, in effect, being punished by those who aren’t.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I want to sit at a bar and have an old fashioned with my wife or with my friends! I miss that the most.

  4. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    I just got an e-mail blast from the Jazz Kitchen in SoBro, opening up again November 9th, with 50% seating…still, tiny place, wouldn’t take the chance, even tho I used to go there a lot!

    Wisconsin is one of the main red spots in the country, and when you look at the map, it’s all areas highly Republican, where their state representatives have been suing the governor to throw out his mask wearing mandates! They say he doesn’t have the power! Welcome to “spreaderville”. Thank God it’s not happening in blue Milwaukee…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The amount of crazy in this country right now is overwhelming.

  5. Marc Beebe Avatar

    Even here we have our share of mask-deniers. They don’t understand that wearing one protects other people, not the wearer. Or maybe they are too selfish to care. I’m old and I don’t breath well anymore. I limit my trips out to the absolute necessary ones and wear an N95 mask when I’m around people. It’s not enough to protect me, but it’s the best I can do. After Thanksgiving here our numbers surged to the highest new daily cases ever. Your country is in the worst shape of any on Earth: 5% of the population and 20% of the reported deaths. Too many people with the attitude that it isn’t real unless it affects them personally. No empathy for others at all! Meanwhile our border with the US stays closed.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s lack of leadership here that I blame for our state. Leadership that said, “this is real, mask up,” would dramatically increase compliance.

  6. J P Avatar

    I continue to believe that we’re not getting out of this until a significant amount of immunity shows up in the population, whether from catching the virus (and getting sick or not) or from a vaccine.

    The young and healthy need to go live life, being careful about contact with the old and sick. Those of us being dragged into the more vulnerable demographics need to do as you are doing by keeping as sheltered as possible.

    I think the evidence is coming in that massive lockdowns 1) don’t work and 2) cause at least as many problems as they avoid.

    I don’t want to catch it, but as in so many things, what I might or might not want is not always relevant.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’d like to see us all wait for a vaccine.

      A young woman, aged about 30, on my team at work announced today that she has it. It’s knocked her out all week so far. It will be interesting to see how long this affects her.

      1. J P Avatar

        One son has definitely had it – thanks to his employer who knew she had been exposed but insisted on calling an in-person staff meeting (and refusing to wear a mask.) He was fortunate that it knocked him down for a couple of days but he was fine after that. Young and healthy is a good thing to be.

    2. Jan Whitaker Avatar
      Jan Whitaker

      I just lived through a 123 day lockdown in a city of 5.5million people, Melbourne Australia. It works. Our daily new case numbers went from over 700 to 0. It can be done, but people need to want to do it and believe it will work. I can attest that it does. We are now opening up again gradually. We are working toward a Covid normal Christmas. Our testing rates are over 20,000/day, which is higher than during the lockdown. People don’t want to lose what we have built. We have mandatory masks, high fines, and currently a 25km travel zone limit, as well as visiting restrictions to private homes and low numbers in restaurants and pubs (10 in a group, max 20 per venue in two separate spaces).

      Our hospitals were saved. Our healthcare workers were saved. Hundreds died in aged care centres, but not just from there and not just elderly.

      So when someone says lockdowns don’t work, they are wrong. Please look outside America. It is NOT the norm, it is the exception, in a very wrong way. I am so sad for my home state and homeland.

      1. Jim Grey Avatar

        The United States has what I call NIH (not invented here) syndrome. We are loath to follow anyone else’s lead. When we blaze our own trail, that’s fine. In this case … not so much.

  7. Gregg Avatar

    Great post Jim! Stay safe & keep the faith. I have the privilege of working in healthcare & the data supports this: EVERYONE needs to mask whenever in public & sustain a state of very limited (as in ‘only when necessary’) contact until we get a vax

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      We are doing limited not-strictly-necessary contact as a way of staying sane, but we are masking up and we are going to places where everyone else is masking too. It’s a calculated risk, to be sure. Otherwise, we’re staying home.

  8. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    Yup. You do not want to get this one….immunity may be short lived, and a vaccine is no guarantee even if one is developed. Lockdowns and Contact Tracing work. Stop movement of people and the virus will die out. We have achieved this here, and life is pretty much back to normal, with our economy proving much more resilient than we expected. I am still careful about where I go though, as no border can be completely watertight.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      We are mucking this up every way possible in the US. I’ve never seen such failure in my country.

  9. fishyfisharcade Avatar

    The number of cases is also likely to be higher than stated due to the number that are either asymptomatic, or produce mild or non-standard symptoms that aren’t reported to a doctor. These cases, while not affecting those individuals, are still likely to be sources of infection to others. Without blanket testing it’s difficult to ascertain just how many people might be infected, but not showing symptoms.

    While we dropped from the initial peak here in the UK during the summer, cases are now escalating rapidly again. I don’t think our government have handled it well at all. The messaging since lockdown has been confusing and a series of high profile individuals (including the Prime Minsters advisor) being seen to be breaking the rules have eroded trust and people’s willingness to follow the conditions that are set out – although, in fairness, I do believe the majority of people follow the rules, and mask wearing is now commonplace in indoor public settings.

    More and more parts of the country are being escalated to the highest Tiel 3 level of restrictions and I think it is only a matter of time before another nationwide lockdown is imposed – although I doubt they will close schools this time unless things become critical.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      At least your leaders are willing to take action. Ours do not appear to be.

  10. Clare Hennessey Avatar
    Clare Hennessey

    Hi Jim. The eminent Dr Anthony Fauci has commended our efforts here in Victoria, Australia. We have been through a rigid lockdown, mask wearing is compulsory, community transmission is virtually zero, IT WORKS.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      From what I’ve read, all of Australia has done a better job of managing this than the US!

    2. Jan Whitaker Avatar
      Jan Whitaker

      Hi Neighbour, from another Melbournian. I”m smiling today. First venturing out to Fountain Gate of all places to get new glasses. It was long, but we made it! We are an example of how to get this wicked thing back under control. Yes, IT WORKS! I’m so glad that Dan held his nerve.

  11. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    Here in the Northern California, everyone pretty much seems to be toeing the line…masks, social distancing. Our positivity rate hovers in the high twos or low threes mostly. Interesting to note that San Francisco…as densely populated as the city is, is doing the best.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      We have good mask compliance now that the governor has ordered them. Social distancing, not so much — the grocery store is still a zoo. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  12. Khürt Williams Avatar

    Jim, I leave the house once a week to have dinner outside at tables spaced eight feet apart and masked to/from the car and table.

    I get it. Stay safe

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Are you still able to eat outside now that it’s chilly? That time is about over for us, unless a bunch of restaurants invest in outdoor heaters.

  13. photowrite2000 Avatar

    Very sensible post, Jim. I liken wearing masks to other safety “inconveniences” such as mandatory seatbelt wearing, motorcycle helmet laws (at least in states that have them) and stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks. Those things hardly impinge on my freedoms.

    Liberty is not the freedom to do anything you feel like. It is the freedom to do what you like as long as it doesn’t negatively affect someone else’s freedom to do the same.

    I mask up every time I’m out, which is limited to grocery shopping and my wife’s doctor visits. Only been to a restaurant once, at the invitation of friends, and tables were properly spaced out.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I remember the hue and cry when Indiana got its seat belt law. It died down after a year or so. Maybe the mask mandate outcry will die down too.

  14. tbm3fan Avatar

    Generally I tend to be a loner more than outgoing. The only place I am outgoing is in my office which is my stage and my job to put you at ease and treat you. I can joke with the best when doing my job. On my own going to a restaurant on our birthdays is enough for me. Or going with three other Hornet volunteers after a hard days work on the ship now and then otherwise I don’t miss restaurants. Bars, I’m 67 not 21, and have a younger wife so who needs them.

    Now two people I know did catch the virus up in Reno. The husband first and he did relatively fine for a 54 year old. His wife did not do fine as she complicated things by being a smoker. She tells me that when she crossed the threshold, into the hospital, is when the fear that you may never leave hit cold and hard. She stayed seven days, O2 for four days, no ICU, and then out. She does not recommend getting the virus.

    1. tbm3fan Avatar

      Oh, still side effects of fatigue and no sense of taste a month later.

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m very introverted and need little human contact but I do need some. I like to get it by being alone in the world, such as sitting at a bar with a drink. I also happen to very much enjoy my wife’s company, and my brother’s, so I’m fortunate.

  15. Victor Villaseñor Avatar
    Victor Villaseñor

    8 months, yikes.

    I make the same calculations, for me is still a high risk. The potential impacts are just unacceptable.

    We have been doing some outings, mitigating the risks, heck, even trips.

    It seems to me we are approaching this the same, stay away from crowded areas, minimize contact, avoid closed spaces, I must confess to have purchased a box of n95’s back in March and use them only when we cant avoid a closed space with persons (For me this includes grocery shopping).

    But you you can always see people just don’t caring anymore, no mask, no distance. Its just perplexing how so many, cant bother to do so little to improve this.

    Stay safe, I fear the return to normalcy is still at least another 8 months away.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Same here: potential impacts are unacceptable. I can’t imagine being too tired to work for 8, 10, 12 weeks.

      Others can do whatever they want — I’m staying away.

  16. brandib1977 Avatar

    I’ve been out adventuring as safely as possible for some time now. I’ve gotten pretty good at seeing to the things I need or want to do without too much exposure or risk. However the onset of Ohio winter means I’ll soon be spending significantly more time hibernating at home. Life is always slower in winter so I’m used to it. Even still, I’ve been taking steps to brace myself for the challenges this winter will bring.

    Glad you got in an adventure. Stay safe and be well!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My first wife used to “hibernate” in January and February — no projects, just go to work and take care of the family (dinner, laundry, etc.) but otherwise rest. Maybe it would be good for me to deliberately think of how to hibernate through this COVID winter.

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        Q1 is my busiest time at work so I purposefully hibernate. I usually do a No Spend January to detox from holiday spending and save some money. This places greater focus on internal and home pursuits. It’s a quiet, more restful time. It’s a very intentional shift that I usually carry over at least some into February.

        This should serve me well as it’s simply part of my routine rather than a limitation forced by Covid.

        I think that you would enjoy it.

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