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Will Americans follow rules in a pandemic?

In this March 1, 2020, file photo, army soldiers wearing protective suits spray JJ disinfectant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in front of a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, South Korea. As the coronavirus spreads around the world, many events that normally would draw large numbers of people are being canceled or played without fans. (Lee Moo-ryul/Newsis via AP, File) Lee Moo-ryul, Associated Press

In a meeting Monday with the editorial boards of the Deseret News and KSL, Salt Lake International Airport Director Bill Wyatt described what is being done to keep travelers safe in the face of a spreading virus.

All “high-touch” areas — railings on moving sidewalks, door handles, restroom fixtures and buttons on elevators, for example — are being “double deep cleaned” once a day, deep cleaned one other time and cleaned to a lesser extent one more time, he said.

Just make sure you’re not the last one to touch these surfaces before the next cleaning begins. The day before our meeting, Wyatt said, 29,000 passengers had entered the airport to fly, and that was a typical day.

The airport, the one place along the Wasatch Front that connects people directly, and within hours, to about 100 domestic cities and several places in Europe and Mexico, is “very much on alert” as a pandemic washes over the nation.

But alertness and helplessness are close cousins right now.

Wyatt acknowledged there is little anyone can do to keep the COVID-19 virus from entering by plane. Only if someone were to disembark and “self declare” that they had been exposed would anyone know of a problem.

If someone who tests positive for the virus were to trace his or her steps back to an encounter at the airport days earlier, authorities would make that information known. But the people likely exposed could be anywhere in the world by then.

Wyatt said this is the third pandemic threat he has encountered as a professional, dating back through SARS and the swine flu. Many of us can say the same. We can also attest that this has a different feel to it.

As you see color coded maps on television showing which states have declared emergencies and which have experienced deaths; as you watch the stock market snap like a bungee cord; as you see basketball games without fans and hear of church services, conventions and trade shows canceled, you may feel like peasants hunkering down in the face of an advancing hostile army.

Or maybe you are defiantly certain the fears are overblown, an American trait that, though often foolhardy, no doubt traces its origin to iron-willed, self-sufficient pioneer stock.

We will know the truth soon enough.

We also might discover whether Americans can be made to act responsibly as a group in the face of an invisible threat.

In China, people in hazmat suits greet flights and stick a contraption on the forehead of every arriving passenger, checking for a temperature. Entire cities can be quarantined. But in the United States, where freedom, liberty and, perhaps above all, privacy, are valued, people might not easily go along.

In 2014, while many in West Africa were battling Ebola and the rest of the world was watching pensively, health officials in Maine tried to quarantine nurse Kaci Hickox for a 21-day incubation period after she returned from an infected area. She fought those efforts in court and won.

That case obviously is different from the current outbreak, in which more than 1,000 Americans already have tested positive, but controlling movement and interaction in the United States would not be easy. Courts could be kept busy.

Earlier this month, The Los Angeles Times examined how far the government could go in forcing people to change behaviors. The answer lies in a mix of federal and state powers. Washington might try to limit interstate travel or commerce. Local health officials would have power to respond to specific needs, with assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But governments have seldom, if ever, had to exercise these powers.

The Times noted that local governments already have been at odds with Washington’s efforts to quarantine people coming here from China, with some threatening legal action. The CDC, meanwhile, has no way to enforce its orders. It relies on state and local authorities for that.

New York’s governor recently sent the National Guard to contain facilities in New Rochelle, New York, where the outbreak has been fierce. Even so, the guard isn’t keeping people from entering or leaving the area.

All of this might change quickly if deaths from COVID-19 spread quickly. An opinion poll in 2007 by Trust for America’s Health found nearly 90% of Americans saying they would abide by a voluntary quarantine if asked.

Is that true? Would we also, as Italians are being asked, maintain a 3-foot perimeter between ourselves and all other people when out in public? Would we follow rules or be suspicious of the rule-makers?

Judging by the nonsensical run on toilet paper and water bottles at the moment, I hope we never have to find out.