Medical Examiner

America Never Did a Real Lockdown

And we’re still not.

a yellow gate and an opening lock
Photo by iMattSmart on Unsplash

In America right now, we’re sort-of attempting to cancel Thanksgiving. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s director of preparedness announced at a press conference last week that the organization is “recommending against travel.” The guidelines online provide more nuance than that, outlining various considerations for risk reduction, like shortening the “duration of the gathering,” and considering the “behaviors of attendees prior to the gathering.” Health experts of many sorts, as detailed in trend pieces, are eating with their households alone, but others are gathering in small groups with precautions. Some are planning to drink with relatives, but not eat; some are planning on eating, but only outside. Some of us are attempting to shame others into complying with the “rules,” which is difficult, because the “rules” are only really suggestions.

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The “rules” also vary a lot by geographical location. Coronavirus is surging nationally, but indoor dining—which involves, by necessity, taking your mask off and moving your mouth such that it produces aerosols, which are what spreads the coronavirus—is banned in just a few places, like SeattleCaliforniaMichigan, and maybe, soon, New York. In some states, indoor gatherings are capped at 10 people, or there’s a recommended cap of a couple households, but in others, there are simply no restrictions. In many places, the restrictions there are make no sense—the government of Minnesota has, for some reason, banned outdoor gatherings of any sort, but wedding venues and churches are still allowed to open their doors to as many as 250 people. The difference in policies doesn’t even correlate with where cases are highest: Leadership in South Dakota, for example, refused to establish so much as a mask mandate while cases there were the highest in the nation. Often, it doesn’t align with what the science says about transmission, like New York allowing restaurants to remain open while schools close.

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In other words, things are very confused in America right now. We are not entering a lockdown, even though some rules, in some places, are getting stricter, and many people are individually or with small pods choosing to limit themselves to essential activity. We’re in this sort of lockdown-purgatory, where we know we should be doing less, but we also aren’t sure where the boundaries are, because the boundaries are not particularly clear, and also not enforced. Consider the countries that actually did go into national—or at least, widespread—lockdown. Restrictions were intense—maybe slightly overdone—but at least they were clear. In January, China canceled New Year lunar festivities. Citizens were not allowed to leave major cities; in some cities, people had to register to move within communities. In other places, they needed a passport-like document to leave home, which was OK for one person from each household to do once every two days. In India, March saw “a total ban of coming out of your homes,” as the prime minister there put it on television. Public transportation halted, and people in cars could be stopped at police checkpoints. Singapore closed its borders, and then required—still requires—people flying in to quarantine for 14 days in a hotel.

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Europe did lockdowns in the spring, and now they’re doing it again. In France, you currently need a permission form to leave your home. This time around, flower shops, bookstores, and other non-essential services are operating under “click and collect,” which is basically online shopping. In Germany, restaurants, and gyms are closed. In the UK, you can only spend the night at another home if that home is in your support bubble or childcare bubble.

It’s not that I think super-strict lockdown—permission slips for walks or runs outside—would be advisable in the U.S. For starters, we know, scientifically, that some activities are inherently low risk, and it would be silly to advise against them (it would probably also backfire). Other activities come with risks that can be mitigated and are worth it (like children going to school, which is still happening in Europe this time around). Lockdowns vary in effectiveness by country—China went into lockdown once, used the time to set up contact tracing and testing, and is now doing fine. France has seen a dramatic turnaround in cases since locking down, but is still proceeding extremely cautiously. Black Friday, for example, has been reschedule for early December. Germany is still struggling with high cases—though they are flattening—and is planning to extend lockdown.

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Instead of national lockdown, what we are doing is individual lockdowns. Cases are climbing, and may well get much worse after Thanksgiving. In the meantime, we are getting exhausted from trying to evaluate risks ourselves, wondering if we are being reckless, wondering if we are being too strict, without a clear-cut national plan (advising people to stay home, if they can, one week prior to a major travel holiday is not a national plan). Some of us will be spending Thanksgiving alone, or in tiny bubbles; others have openly said that they will gather anyway. Some of us will keep avoiding dining indoors while some of us go to the movies, or hold weddings. Many (most?) of us will be doing something in between, trying to cobble together our own individual sets of rules for a terrible, scary winter the best we can.

Update, Nov. 25, 2020: This post has been updated to include additional locations that have banned indoor dining. 

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