SALT LAKE CITY — Utah and Oregon are bookends right now in the fight to keep Thanksgiving from becoming a super-spreader for COVID-19.
On the one end, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, under pressure from state lawmakers, lifted his own ban on social gatherings involving people from separate households ahead of the holiday. He cited a “leveling off” of case counts in the state — a difficult argument to make considering a rolling seven-day average of 3,284 new cases daily and a report that intensive care units are 90.8% full.
On the other end, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown this week urged people to call the police on their neighbors if they notice more than six people in their homes.
“This is no different than what happens if there’s a party down the street and it’s keeping everyone awake,” numerous news reports quoted her as saying. “What do neighbors do (in that case)? They call law enforcement because it’s too noisy. This is just like that. It’s a violation of a noise ordinance.”
So one governor wants to dampen concerns that large Thanksgiving gatherings pose a risk. The other one wants to turn the one holiday that gives Americans what they need most right now — a chance to turn from anger and divisiveness toward a soul-healing tradition of expressing gratitude and embracing family — into the equivalent of a kegger by the kids down the street.
Admittedly, few things will test the mettle of a politician like the intersection of a pandemic and the holiday season. There are no manuals for this and precious few precedents, other than those that are a century or more old. And those don’t help much, considering the public response to the flu pandemic of 1918-20 was a miserable failure.
But political leaders would do best by focusing their policies on helping people safely do what they are going to do anyway. The reality is that many people are going to get together this week, no matter what anyone says.
Dr. Vinay Prasad, a hematologist-oncologist and associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, may have written the most insightful op-ed on this subject, a piece published last week by Medpagetoday.com. First, he cites opinion polls showing close to 40% of people saying they plan to gather with more than 10 people on Thursday, and that many won’t wear a mask. Health experts (and, I would add, politicians), “should not just listen, but hear what people are saying,” he said.
“Americans are saying that despite all the damage done by COVID-19, despite the rising cases and at-capacity ICUs around the country, their desire for human connection is so great that they are willing to take the risk and have Thanksgiving. Americans are, in effect, expressing the longing and desperation of their soul.”
No politician, and especially no public shaming, will change that. The question then becomes: What can governments and health officials do, within that reality, to lower risks? Prasad wonders whether governments instead should “close streets, set up tables and provide outdoor heat lamps,” asking, “Would that not be better than driving people inside?”
That may be difficult on a cold day in Utah, and the costs sound insurmountable, but it moves the thinking in the right direction.
“The truth of public health is that it is a service industry; it is not meant to imprison, but to empower,” Prasad wrote. “The reality is that minimizing risk is also often the prudent strategy.”
When otherwise good people really want something that is, because of unique circumstances, risky, governments run the risk of inciting rebellion by trying to turn those people into criminals.
“Scolding and shaming them for wanting this is unlikely to slow the spread of (COVID-19),” Prasade wrote.
But ignoring the heightened risks by lifting a ban on gathering isn’t doing the public much of a service, either. While Herbert urged Utahns to “voluntarily comply with good protocol,” his lifting of the ban seemed to send, at best, a confusing message.
This is not an easy challenge. Pushing the message that Thanksgiving and Christmas are bad this year is the kind of heavy lift that would make even Sisyphus roll his boulder downhill and go to bed. America, and the world, needs these holidays now more than ever. They are filled with ennobling traditions and transcendent truths that bring meaning to life.
But, of course, the novel coronavirus doesn’t care about any of this. It will ravage loved ones just as readily as strangers. The most responsible course, certainly, is to voluntarily limit gatherings and use technology to connect with family. The best hope for governments, however, may be to help people minimize risk, after first showing them they are being heard and convincing them we’re all on the same side.