The coronavirus has been a bonanza for scolds who enjoy bashing others for even the smallest of perceived mitigation infractions.
Some scolding is useful, but in some cases, it has become what New York Times writer David Leonhardt calls “coronavirus absolutism.”
These days, there is a new absolutist health fad: the discouragement — or even prohibition — of any behavior that seems to increase the risk of coronavirus infection, even minutely.
People continue to scream at joggers, walkers and cyclists who are not wearing masks. The University of California, Berkeley, this week banned outdoor exercise by on-campus students, masked or not, saying, “The risk is real.” The University of Massachusetts Amherst has banned outdoor walks. It encouraged students to get exercise by “accessing food and participating in twice-weekly Covid testing.”
A related trend is “hygiene theater,” as Derek Thompson of The Atlantic described it: The New York City subway system closes every night, for example, so that workers can perform a deep cleaning.
Does any of this over-reaction make a difference?
Prohibiting outdoor activity is unlikely to reduce the spread of the virus, nor is urging people always to wear a mask outdoors.
Okay. How about absolutism? Does it make sense to take every possible precaution anyway because it might – possibly – make a difference?
Telling Americans to wear masks when they’re unnecessary undermines efforts to persuade more people to wear masks where they are vital. Remember: Americans are not doing a particularly good job of wearing masks when they make a big difference, indoors and when people are close together outdoors.
Banning college students from outdoor walks won’t make them stay inside their dorm rooms for weeks on end. But it probably will increase the chances that they surreptitiously gather indoors.
And spending money on deep cleaning leaves less money for safety measures that will protect people, like faster vaccination.
Bottom line: wear a mask where it makes sense to do so (public indoor spaces in particular). And wash your hands (your mom was right about that all along).