Op-ed: We need reasons not rules

The weekend before Memorial Day saw swarms of beach and boardwalk goers — but not all of them wore masks.
Photo by Todd Maisel

Someone once said the greatest part of wisdom is knowing what you don’t know. 

For the past three months, we’ve received reliably changing guidance on how to survive this virus, and as a result, people are now more confused than ever.  

In February, we were told to keep calm and carry on as normal. In rote New York City defiance, we went out for dim sum and urged others to do the same. A few weeks later, I was demanding Mayor de Blasio close New York City schools and playgrounds immediately.

In a few short, dizzying months, we went from being told to stay home in an ersatz lockdown, to where we are now, which is somewhere between “you can go outside but wear a mask and stay away from other people.” We’ve been moving the goalposts so much that no one really knows where the line is anymore, and confusion is spreading faster than new cases. We need to get clear on updated protocol and guidance now, before we completely lose the crowd. 

We were only able to stem the spread in March and April because the public trusted the guidance coming from Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and the justification for staying home was clear. People saw a direct connection between the significant threat of the virus and their own preventative actions. But now the curve has been flattened, cases are dramatically down, and after being cooped up for months, people are starting to unravel. And while restlessness is not a metric recognized by the CDC, it is a reality. We need only look to increased car traffic, crowds outside bars, and people laying out blankets and going for a swim at supposedly shuttered beaches to know that the public is losing faith. The “just say no” approach is not sustainable and the all-or-nothing messaging isn’t working anymore. 

If we expect people to adapt, we need reasons not rules. We need crystal clear guidance rooted in sound public health policy. Explain why we’re being told to do what we’re being told to do. How can our actions reduce stress on our healthcare system and stop the spread? How do we continue to prioritize protecting the most vulnerable among us? And finally, give us some common sense clarification on why wearing a mask matters.

With no vaccine in sight, we’ve got no choice but to buckle up for the long haul on social distancing. But we must recognize expecting everyone to avoid all human contact indefinitely is just not realistic. We need to provide guidance telling people how to safely gather or be social, and properly communicate exactly which behaviors and situations pose a risk, at what level, and to whom. This shouldn’t be informed by armed protesters or Facebook memes but by public health officials and epidemiologists.

We should take cues from countries that have already been through this phase, especially when it comes to how our small businesses can safely operate. With our beloved mom and pop shops withering on the vine, it’s important that we isolate and address the specific risks inherent to each type of business, and find ways for them to safely reopen as soon as possible. Lastly, the emergency categories  of “non-essential” and “essential” that were created for small businesses during the height of the pandemic should be revisited now that the curve has been flattened. 

I’m not saying that we should reward the restless. I have no sympathy for those who want our city to reopen during a pandemic simply because they want a pedicure or a frozen margarita at brunch. And it comes as no surprise that the “open up” protests that have popped up around the country are mostly coming from cities far away from those experiencing widespread infection and communities who have suffered the least. It is simply impossible to ignore the dynamics of race, class, and socioeconomics here. Those of us who lost someone to this terrible virus, or who have gotten very sick ourselves, are not in such a rush to return to “normal,” and rightfully so because the virus is still out there, lying in wait. 

But as summer sets in, and the clock starts to tick on unemployment and other forms of temporary relief, it won’t just be the selfish and the restless who will ignore unclear guidance. Anyone who cannot see a direct connection between their precautionary actions and the threat of the virus will inevitably stray from protocol. So it is crucial that we are eyes wide open honest and clear with New Yorkers about where we are at right now and how we move forward, safely and united. 

I don’t know if this lull is just the calm before the next storm. Nobody does. What I do know is that simple, clear, and unemotional guidance is more important now than ever before. Why? Because we’re not all on the same page anymore and mixed messages kill.

There may not be a playbook for a once-in-a-century pandemic but for the past three months, people have only been told how to survive. Now, people need to know how to live.

Justin Brannan is a New York City Councilman who represents the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst and Bath Beach.