The news about the coronavirus in the United States is not good: 22 states have seen recent increases in cases. The curve is not only not flattening, it’s actively curving in the wrong direction. There were 1,233 new cases reported Sunday in Arizona, 1,422 in Texas, and 2,016 in Florida, which are “New York in mid-March” kinds of numbers.
Nevertheless, those states continue to press toward “reopening,” in the name of liberating a broke and restive population to get outside and get back to doing the things everybody used to do, like eating in restaurants and going to sports events. Between this urge, the sometimes contradictory fluidity of public health guidelines, and the fact that much of the carnage of the outbreak happened out of sight to people who don’t live in major cities, the coronavirus is being treated in some places as if it no longer exists, with every restriction on behavior being lifted at once.
Even if you’re mad about how inconsistent lockdown rules have been, though, the evidence shows that some of those rules actually do matter. It appears that you can go to the beach, run errands, and hang out in the yard without creating massive risk. But that doesn’t mean the virus isn’t real—and the consensus, nonpartisan “best practice” for acknowledging the reality of the virus is, still, to avoid being in close contact with strangers unless it’s strictly necessary (especially indoors) and, when you do have to be near people you don’t know, to wear a mask.
This is in some sense good news, because it only requires individual effort, and not much of it at that. The large-scale infrastructure for containing the virus is in place; although the current presidential administration was much slower to prepare testing and contact tracing capacities than nearly every government in Europe and Asia, individual states have eventually gotten such systems up and running. Florida, for instance, reported conducting about as many new COVID-19 tests, adjusted for population, on Sunday as New Jersey, where cases have been declining for weeks. (The state only reported 274 new positive tests Monday.) Texas says it has 2,900 contact tracers already working, with plans to add more than a thousand more; that, again, is roughly comparable to the number allegedly working per capita in New Jersey.
With the caveat that we have all learned this year how complex epidemiology can be, what appears to set the “curve declining” states apart from the “curve increasing” states is avoiding indoor gatherings and wearing masks. Restaurant dining was allowed weeks earlier across the South than it was in the Midwest, for example; Texas restaurants opened for indoor service on May 1, while those in Michigan opened on June 8. (They’re still not open in New York.) Here’s a comparison of regional new-case rates per capita:
It’s harder to quantify differences in mask use, but on-the-scene reports have documented widespread mask-free socializing and shopping in places like Georgia, Texas, and Orange County, California, that are currently seeing case increases. Photos from recent protests (and the personal experiences of Slate staffers) suggest that mask use indoors (and when in close outdoor proximity to strangers) is, meanwhile, close to universal in the urban Northeast, where cases have declined even more steeply than they have in the Midwest. To the degree that it’s possible to draw conclusions, scientific studies support a correlation between mask-wearing and reduced viral spread. In late May, two Missouri hairstylists who’d seen a combined 140 customers since their business reopened were diagnosed with COVID-19, but last week, health officials reported that both the stylists and their customers had worn masks during their interactions and that no clients had been infected. Elsewhere in Missouri, though, five new infections have been linked to the individual who attended several crowded events in the Lake of the Ozarks resort area at which no one was wearing a mask.
The public health narrative on masks has been confusing. Earlier in the year, some experts urged regular civilians not to wear them because they were in short supply for medical professionals and because social distancing and hand-washing can also slow viral transmission. As top federal health official Anthony Fauci said in an interview Friday, though, those shortages have been eliminated, and there’s no good reason not to wear a mask now in close-contact social situations. But that message hasn’t gotten through as the White House has gone more than a month without giving a coronavirus briefing and Donald Trump and Mike Pence have insisted on appearing in public without masks, in order to convey strength (or something). And although Republican governors in several states have urged their citizens not to see mask use as a political issue, a loud and visible faction of culture warriors have popularized the idea that not wearing one is a macho way to defy know-it-all liberals.
A lot of countries did the hard part of coronavirus right—the preparation, the science, and the economic backstopping—and have almost eliminated the spread of the pandemic within their borders. The United States took too long to do the hard part. But now significant parts of our population aren’t doing the easy part—wearing a small piece of cloth and eating pizza at home—either.
On Sunday, 43,000 people attended a rugby match in New Zealand, where there hasn’t been a coronavirus case in weeks. When other countries are doing mass spectation of brain-altering full-contact sports better than America is, you know something has really gone wrong. Wear your masks, everyone!