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Does ‘border bias’ lull policymakers, people into thinking they’re safe from coronavirus?

The security line is empty at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced new efforts on Wednesday “to protect the people of Utah and slow the spread of coronavirus in the state” by closely monitoring its borders, as well as passengers who fly into the Salt Lake International Airport.
The security line is empty at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced new efforts on Wednesday “to protect the people of Utah and slow the spread of coronavirus in the state” by closely monitoring its borders, as well as passengers who fly into the Salt Lake International Airport.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Some policymakers are falling prey to what a pair of University of Utah professors call “border bias” as they make rules for slowing the spread of coronavirus in their states.

In response to COVID-19, many initiatives under consideration or in place seem to assume that state or county borders are somehow going to protect people from the deadly disease, according to U. marketing professors Arul and Himanshu Mishra.

People also can erroneously believe that if the virus is not spreading in their city or state, then they are safe. That can result in people taking fewer precautions while not realizing that the virus doesn’t care about political boundaries.

The couple, who authored a paper titled, “Border Bias: The Belief That State Borders Can Protect Against Disasters,” say their research shows that over time people start thinking of those lines as physical protections against any type of disasters such as earthquakes, fires, or now the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Border bias lulls people into thinking that something happening in another city would not affect them, but the virus is not aware of such imaginary lines on the map and can spread because people are moving across such political borders,” the Mishras wrote in an email interview.

Gov. Gary Herbert’s “stay safe, stay home” directive seeks to limit Utahns’ movement throughout the state. Seven counties have taken that further with stay-at-home orders, which are sending residents mixed signals.

Disparate state orders indicate a belief that a disaster is occurring in a different state or city but not in one’s own state or city. It also causes people to lower their guard and seemingly ignore that the virus has already breached nation or state borders around the globe, the professors say.

“If people feel that the county border is going to protect them and buy into the belief that ‘it is not happening in my county,’ then their behaviors are likely to be different,” the Mishras said.

On Wednesday, Herbert issued an order that recognizes lines on a map don’t help contain the virus.

Starting Friday, in advance of Easter weekend, the state will require everyone 18 and older who enters Utah, either through Salt Lake City International Airport or on the roadways, to fill out a COVID-19 declaration. The form will ask people if they have been tested for COVID-19 and if they are experiencing any symptoms of the novel coronavirus. It also asks where they have recently been traveling.

Motorists will be pulled over when entering the state and asked to fill out a form on a state website, said Carlos Braceras, executive director of Utah Department of Transportation. The information from road and air travelers will be sent to a secure database at the Utah Department of Health to be used to track the spread of COVID-19 and not to penalize people, he said.

Utah is among eight states that do not have a statewide stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order.

Herbert said the state gave more authority to community leaders through local health departments who know best what needs to happen in their areas, “so it might be that every county is not the same, but every county probably doesn’t need to be the same.”

The governor continued to defend Utah’s approach at a press briefing Wednesday, saying it is working and people are complying. State or counties have issued orders but say they’re not going to enforce them, while Utah has issued a directive it expects everyone to follow without police patrols, he said.

“Sometimes we get caught up in the nomenclature of what’s being said as opposed to what’s being done,” Herbert said. “At the end of the day, they’re both saying the same thing, and in Utah people are in fact changing their behavior.”

The Mishras say many factors can affect how people perceive the pandemic and whether they should be taking precautions. People might look at whether the virus is widespread or not in their city or county and compare it to other cities, and then decide whether to take safety measures or not.

“The cause of concern is that belief that borders offer physical protection against the virus is a biased way of thinking,” they said. “It is only when the curve flattens across the country — not just in their city or state — that people should bring down their guards and that, too, slowly, otherwise there may be a tragic resurgence.”

When to start lifting social distancing restrictions is the topic of much debate.

Herbert said in a press conference Tuesday he wants to see cases drop for a week or more before easing any state restrictions.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp drew harsh criticism for a shelter-in-place order last week that also rolled back tougher measures imposed by cities and counties. His action opened beaches the local jurisdictions had closed, creating a backlash from some coastal towns that fear the order upends their efforts to curb COVID-19.

Arul and Himanshu Mishra say making people aware of border bias can help them take more precautions, which would reduce the spread of the virus. They said knowing there is movement across borders, that the virus is unconstrained by local and state boundaries and that it has already breached nations and continents would make people less likely to think it is not happening where they live.