The Slatest

The Government Has Enabled Our Risky Pandemic Decisions

Allowing individualism to shape pandemic policy lets officials sidestep their responsibility to keep their populace safe.

People holding takeout bowls walk on a snowy sidewalk past an outdoor dining area.
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Indoor dining is due to reopen in New York today, just in time for Valentine’s Day. It’s a precarious decision based on declining COVID-19 infections on the one hand and restaurants desperately wanting to resume service during the Hallmark-fueled, profitable weekend on the other.

“They have made the point that they’d like to open a couple of days earlier so they can be ready for Valentine’s Day,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “Get the staff oriented, get supplies into the restaurant. And that’s a reasonable request. So we’ll start indoor dining on Friday at 25 percent. It should be a big restaurant day.”

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Cuomo has also signed off on a one-hour extension of the state’s curfew for bars and restaurants.

But a festive weekend could lead to a disastrous surge in coronavirus infections. Reservations for the weekend increased by 96 percent following Cuomo’s announcement, according to Eater’s reporting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers indoor dining to be one of the riskiest pandemic activities. And new variants of the virus, which are more transmissible than the original, were detected in the U.S. in December and are expected to proliferate in weeks to come.

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People don’t have to go out and run the risk, but government officials also don’t have to allow indoor dining to be available in the first place. This dual-pronged tension has been present throughout the entire pandemic. Elected officials have leaned into the principle of American individualism and have given their constituents the free will to make their own public health decisions. And those folks, who have varying definitions of public safety, just do whatever they believe fits within their interpretation of what’s risky.

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It’s important to note that there are a variety of reasons someone would go out to dinner during a pandemic, including preservation of mental health and grasping for some sense of normalcy. The latter is most relatable to me. I went out to dinner once last summer just to feel ordinary. (For what it’s worth, it didn’t help.) Such instances, while admittedly selfish, aren’t malicious or rooted in a complete disregard for public health. For others, it’s all about this being a free country in which they can do as they please and to hell with anyone else—particularly when it comes to masking.

When institutions that are responsible for protecting the whole allow that sense of individualism to go unchecked—by, say, not enforcing mask mandates or shelving them altogether—it further fuels the systemic inequality that serves as America’s bedrock. And that same inequality has continued to make itself known during the pandemic, which has hit communities of color, poor people, and those in the service industry particularly hard.

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Between March and October, line cooks may have experienced the highest COVID-19 mortality rate of all professions, including health care workers, according to a study from the University of California, San Francisco. (This study is waiting to be peer-reviewed.) The most disparate outcomes have befallen people of color, who are more likely to hold jobs that require them to show up in person. Indigenous and Black Americans have the highest and second-highest mortality rates of all groups, respectively. Limiting one’s own public interaction is a privilege only afforded to the upper and middle classes.

The truth is that structures inform our individual decisions every day, and that system-informed free will has real human consequences. Throughout the pandemic, governments have failed to manage risk systemically. Instead, they have dumped responsibility onto individual people, under a patchwork of restrictions and recommendations, choosing the economy over human well-being. You choose to venture out for Valentine’s Day; the person who cooks your food chooses not to lose their paycheck. But no one personally chose the harm that could follow.

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