Why many of the "open everything" COVID-19 arguments are so dishonest
Just admit that this is about guilt-free dinner parties, instead.
Hello, dear readers. Happy Monday.
Last July, I wrote about how we’ve become a “society of Holiday Inn Express guests,” a reference to the long-running ad campaign from the ‘90s. You know the one. “No, I’m not [surgeon/astrophysicist/etc.], but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night!”
The campaign was built around the idea of unearned confidence, with the line of thinking being that if someone was smart enough to stay at Holiday Inn’s then-new line of economically-friendly hotels that they may just start carrying over that confidence into their everyday lives. Seven months later, and I’m honestly a little disgusted with how well that edition of the newsletter holds up.1
The same people whose May 2021 hot takes (see: Nate Silver,2 Yascha Mounk,3 et al.) I blasted in my July newsletter for their premature calls for people to ditch COVID mitigation measures are still at it and still pretending that they were right all along.
“Open everything” type articles are both obnoxious and dishonest.
On February 9, The Atlantic published Mounk’s call to “open everything.” He opens by patting himself on the back for calling on people to “cancel everything” in March 2020 (no mention of his disastrously incorrect May 2021 take, which was followed by more than 325,000 American deaths).
Mounk acknowledges that “the most severe government restrictions on everyday activities adopted at the height of the pandemic have since been lifted,” and pivots away from calling for a change in government policy (which has been at the center of many of these “open everything” type pieces) and instead, demanding people change their own personal behavior.
“Many of us became accustomed to carrying out an informal risk-benefit analysis before every outing,” he writes. “Although few people forgo social activities to the extent they did in 2020, many still ask themselves whether that spontaneous visit to a local coffee shop or that long-awaited vacation is ‘really worth it.’”
Okay, and? This is just how life is. I suppose I’ve always been a bit more on the cautious side of things, but I’ve always gone through those sorts of “informal risk-benefit analysis” exercises. Driving to my parents’ house, for instance, brings with it different levels of risk depending on the road conditions. This isn’t to say that I won’t visit them during a blizzard, but the question of whether it’s “really worth it” is a totally normal thing to factor in. This isn’t something that’s irrational, nor is it unique to the pandemic.
Mounk eventually admits what’s really bothering the “open everything” crowd: guilt.
His call to end “pandemic purgatory” includes a very interesting line [emphasis added]:
By this I mean that we should lift all remaining restrictions on everyday activities (which were, in any case, unable to prevent the rapid circulation of Omicron cases this winter). Children should be allowed to take off their mask in school. We should get rid of measures such as deep cleaning that are purely performative. Politicians and public-health officials should send the message that Americans should no longer limit their social activities, encouraging them to resume playdates and dinner parties without guilt.
He just wants to have his dinner parties without feeling sad about it. It’s really that simple. He wants the government to tell people to go out and have dinner parties and for others not to judge them for it. The truth is that quite literally nobody is stopping him from having dinner parties. He wants the government to intervene specifically to tell people how to feel. How sad and, dare I say, snowflakey is that?
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My biggest question is why someone would frame an article around “opening everything” then you admit that things are, in fact, open? Is it because the actual argument being made — that people need to pretend that COVID-19 doesn’t exist, that they need to pretend like long COVID isn’t something to be concerned about — isn’t actually one the author can support?
In sharing a different article from The Atlantic on Twitter, Silver wrote, “If this is the new normal (where you go through an incredibly fraught decision process to determine whether it’s OK to meet a friend you haven’t seen in 2 years for coffee) then it’s no wonder the vast majority of people prefer the old normal.”
Of course, people “prefer the old normal.” Nobody is sitting around chuckling to themselves that a couple of thousand people a day are dying from a virus that didn’t exist 2.5 years ago. But “old normal” vs. “new normal” is a false choice. It cannot be 2019 because it is, in fact, 2022. I can’t be 20 years old because I am, in fact, 35. Time moves onward. If I could make COVID-19 disappear, I’d do it. But I can’t. It’s here. Hopefully, its future mutations make it weaker, but nothing I say or do will affect it. “Normal” is, and will always be, a state beyond our personal control.
When I graduated college in 2009, thrust into an economy in free fall, I didn’t get to go, “Ummm… I actually preferred the ‘old normal’ where ‘entry-level’ jobs didn’t say, ‘Needs seven-years experience,’ on them!” (I mean, I certainly could have said that, but I don’t think The Atlantic would be running out to commission a piece on it from me.) Sometimes the world deals us a bad hand.
This idea, that if we all just act as though COVID-19 doesn’t exist we’ll be able to fake it ‘til we make it, doesn’t make any sense.
“Learning to live with COVID” is how this gets phrased a lot of the time. Yes, we do need to learn to live with COVID, but that doesn’t mean pretending that COVID isn’t real and shouldn’t factor into personal decisions or mitigation efforts.
God help me, but let's wade into the Yascha Mounk discourse, because apparently he's the main character today. There's been a lot of dunking on the "open everything" framing because indeed, nothing anywhere is closed except businesses that are gone and schools (temporarily). I don't know if now is the time to lift mask mandates. What I know is the idea that current restrictions in cities are no big deal is bananas. Please come to Chicago, where riding on the CTA is the Wild West - half-empty cars, people smoking, doing whatever.
The commuter train I take to work is maybe 20% of pre-pandemic capacity. Must be bleeding hundreds of thousands of dollars a week at minimum. The Loop, once a mini-Manhattan, is a shell of what it was. Homelessness is everywhere, much worse. Like many cities, Chicago is organized (for better or worse) around downtown. That's where all the trains go. Billions in property values depend on that model continuing to exist. And the city -feels- deeply off. Almost no one wants to sit in a mask to watch a movie for hours.
Social life is also a husk of what it was. Making plans is close to impossible with anyone but very close friends. Understandably, people here are mostly risk-averse. Like many with under 5s, we've been reluctant to do normal indoor things that make winter here bearable. That's to say nothing of work, where I spend countless hours teaching in a mask, to masked students, with the predictable effects on community building, happiness and learning. It's better than Zoom University, but the halls are empty and there are no office doors open.
After work, everything is weird. Bars and restaurants are ghost towns, where they are open. Lots are gone forever. Everything feels sinister in a downtown where there aren't enough people. Cumulatively, this means things don't just not feel normal - they feel VERY BAD. Can this be fixed with a proclamation to return to normalcy from the governor or mayor? I don't know. I'm out of answers. But please don't tell me that it's all in my head. These problems are very real, and they are getting worse. The end.
The only actual problem that can be in any way affected by government intervention Faris described in his thread was that he doesn’t enjoy teaching in a mask. Okay. Other than that, though? Not really!
“Don’t tell me that it’s all in my head,” he wrote. “These problems are very real, and they are getting worse.”
Okay, but the “problems” are that trains are… too empty? And that… his social life is “a husk of what it was”? And… the people who own overpriced downtown commercial real estate may see the price decline if fewer people go to actual offices? These are his complaints, immediately following the line, “What I know is the idea that current restrictions in cities are no big deal is bananas.”
But… what restrictions? Look, man, I used to work downtown. It can be a nice place. I used to get on the train every morning, packed like a sardine, from the Howard Red Line stop all the way down to Lake. And then I’d walk around the corner to an office on Wacker. It was fine. It ate up about 2 hours per day (10 hours per week, 500 hours per year, etc.) of my time, though. That’s a lot. It adds up. I started working from home in 2015, and while it has its challenges, I’ve found it to be a better fit for me, personally. I’m sure I’m not alone. And when Faris got a bit of push-back on this, he simply insisted that “Most people don’t hate commuting or working in person,” and then without providing any data, added, “Zero data to suggest [working from home] is good for anyone.”
Again, the big benefit Faris describes when it comes to working in office vs. at home is that it will protect the “billions in property values” that “depend on that model continuing to exist.”
How is any of that my problem? Oh, I’m sorry that the building where Kraft Heinz has its global headquarters might not be worth as much someday? Oh, I’m sorry that the owner of the Trump International Hotel and Tower might see his property values fall (gosh, wonder what happened to that guy, anyway)? Think about that. If you commute 2 hours per day, 5 days a week, you will spend an equivalent of nearly 21 days (3 weeks!) commuting each year. If you’re calling on people who can do their jobs just as well at home to come into a physical office to do the same work while erasing 21 days from their lives, you need to make a better argument than property values (for buildings that workers do not even own).
Damon Linker, a columnist at The Week, responded favorably to Faris’ thread, endorsing the idea of ending COVID mitigation efforts and adjusting if “another, worse variant arises.”
Someone responded, “We can adjust = watch people continue to die by the thousands daily.”
Linker wrote back, “As Yascha Mounk argued in his essay, wearing a mask in a classroom or refraining for going out to dinner in downtown Chicago does nothing to protect an unvaccinated person in Mississippi. The latter is who’s dying at this point.”
And here’s where I felt the need to jump in. Chicago, where I live, got hit pretty hard by the Omicron variant, and at the time of the tweet, was (thankfully) on its way down from a peak.
And again, the overwhelming majority of what both Yascha and David both argued is for other people to change how they choose to act. This doesn’t seem to even be about policy anymore. It’s like you guys just want to control people like they’re characters in a video game.
Not to mention that these pieces are always framed around a straw man pretending that the “other” side in the argument is calling for full-on lockdowns, when that simply isn’t the case.
Virtually everyone wants things to “get back to normal.” It’s a question of how to get there in the safest, fastest way possible.
That’s what makes these sorts of pieces so frustrating to read.
If someone wants to write a piece making an actual argument for why and when a specific policy decision should be made, great. Trying to frame it as a “do you want things to be normal?” [question] misrepresents it.
The “open everything” arguments center around micromanaging the decisions of others without actually addressing their concerns.
Just like telling someone in the middle of a panic attack to just “calm down,” it’s probably not especially helpful to just demand that people role-play their 2019 lives while doing little more than adding a “to be sure” sentence here and there about protecting unvaccinated and immunocompromised individuals (without ever actually making a case for how to do that).
The American health care system makes it extremely, prohibitively expensive to be sick in this country. And our lack of guaranteed paid sick leave and a generally fragile social safety net aren’t exactly helping matters. Those are things I haven’t seen brought up in the “open everything” sorts of arguments. If you got sick tomorrow and had to miss a week of work, would you be able to? What if you had to go to the hospital for even a day or two? For many people, that’s potentially a life-altering nightmare, but you’re going to tell them to stop factoring COVID-19 into the risk calculations that guide their everyday lives? Even if it’s possible to just do that, is that good advice? I don’t think so.
On December 17, Washington Post games reporter Gene Park went to see Spider-Man: No Way Home in theaters. Gene is just such a genuinely nice person, and I’m really glad to have met up with him during one of my trips to DC in 2018.
But I also saw the Spider-Man movie that day. Just not at the same theater. In the run-up to showtime, I felt nervous, as I hadn’t been in a movie theater since Rise of Skywalker in 2019, and the absolute last thing I wanted was to catch COVID after playing it safe for so long.
Luckily, I went to the movie, loved every second of it, and as a bonus, didn’t catch COVID (no thanks to the people sitting right behind me who took off their masks as soon as they made it to their seats). Gene wasn’t as lucky, testing positive five days later.
A little more than a month later, Gene, who had been somewhat absent from Twitter during that time, tweeted that he was still struggling with COVID-related recovery symptoms. “Showering is exhausting,” he tweeted. “Washing my hair almost makes me pass out. Getting my mail feels like a mile run. I need a nap after typing a few sentences.” Wow.
And then last night he tweeted again about his long COVID symptoms, calling it “not a livable situation,” and adding, “Not being able to lift my hands anytime I want is not a life I’m used to.”
laurie allee @lauriealleeA couple I know had Covid last month & "don't feel right." They are shocked Dr. told them he would test for blood clots & heart abnormalities. They had NO IDEA this was a post Covid thing. Thought long Covid was "coughing & fatigue." THIS is what media has done. #misinformation
I see that and think, “What are the ‘open everything’ articles suggesting happen to people like Gene? Are they just supposed to deal with it? “Sorry that your mild case of COVID is making life extraordinarily difficult right now?” “Sorry that we have no idea how long this will last?” “Sorry that health insurers now and in the future are likely to try to use this as an excuse to not pay your bills?”
If you want to make the argument in favor of a specific policy position, do it. But first, understand that your argument is worthless if it doesn’t take into account people who can’t afford to get sick and doesn’t take into account the unknowns of long COVID. Next, understand that you are not in charge of determining whether someone has too low of a risk tolerance. There are things businesses can do to try to make their locations more enticing for risk-averse potential customers (upgrades to ventilation systems, for instance) that don’t rely on “hygiene theater” tactics of wiping down surfaces over and over and over. Maybe aim your arguments at those businesses instead of yelling at the general population to match their 2019 trips to fast-casual restaurants.
No, COVID is not going away. Yes, we have to find a way to “live with it.” No, that doesn’t mean pretending that it doesn’t exist. By all means, have your dinner parties, fly on planes, go sit next to tens of thousands of people at the Super Bowl. These are all things you can absolutely do right now. But if this is the extent that your “open everything” type argument centers on, if it represents a false version of what the “other side” is arguing in favor of (pretty much everyone wants to “open everything!” It’s just a matter of what we do in the process of getting there), then maybe it’s not an argument worth making.
Trust me when I say that I really do hope that my sometimes-a-bit-too-doom-and-gloom view of the world and the predictions that result turn out to be wrong. Unfortunately, my track record on this kind of stuff has been pretty spot-on.
Nate Silver, May 4, 2021: “It’s very difficult to know what constitutes rational behavior during a pandemic like COVID-19 so there’s a limit to how much you might judge anybody’s choices. But I’d argue that one sign of irrationality is if a person doesn’t change their behavior much after being vaccinated.”