“Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”
— Zechariah Chafee Jr., “Freedom of Speech in War Time,” Harvard Law Review, 1919, quoting an anonymous judge.
Applied to our current situation, of course, that distance to our noses has been extended to at least six feet, and we’re less concerned with swinging arms than we are with the droplets that are exhaled or coughed out.
Nearly two months now into the state’s stay-home orders in response to the coronavirus pandemic — and with only a general outline of how and when those restrictions will be lifted — some are more than ready to put it all behind them and get on with their lives.
That’s understandable, and defensible, especially since Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home orders — as necessary as they are — have meant economic hardships and curtailed freedoms for families and individuals, closures and potential bankruptcies for businesses and budgetary nightmares for local, tribal and state governments.
Some have had enough. That’s clear from last week’s coverage in The Herald:
• A Snohomish barber has proudly defied the governor’s orders, opened his shop and now faces the loss of his license, fines and possible criminal charges;
• The Stillaguamish Tribe has reopened its Angel of the Winds Casino, north of Arlington, the first in Western Washington to do so, but not the last as other tribes in Western Washington are making similar plans in coming weeks; and
• The owners of a drive-in movie theater on Whidbey Island have petitioned the state to allow it to open for business, ahead of its place in the state’s phased reopening plans.
Snohomish barbershop owner Bob Martin, who reopened his shop earlier this month, already has had his cosmetology license suspended, been served a cease-and-desist order by the state and warned by the Snohomish Health District that he faces the possibility of fines, loss of his licenses and even criminal charges if he continues to serve customers.
The only social-distancing practice which Martin is following, he said, was to wash his hands between customers. No gloves. No masks for himself or required of his customers.
“If they got a cold, I’ll give them a shot of whiskey; that will kill the germs,” Martin said.
Honestly, the whiskey would be more effective as hand sanitizer.
The Stillaguamish Tribe, by contrast, has taken numerous precautions as it reopened its casino and two of its restaurants. It has trimmed the facility’s capacity in half to 800 patrons at a time and is requiring them to bring and wear their own masks or face-coverings; it uses a text-message reservation system; it requires temperature checks upon entering; and it has made the facility smoke-free.
The owners of the Blue Fox Drive-in, south of Oak Harbor, make the argument that it can operate safely as its customers would remain in their vehicles, similar to the arrangement made for churches, where worshipers watch a live-stream of services from their cars.
The cases made by each — especially regarding jobs — are compelling to varying degrees, but all rely largely on the reasoning of caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware,” that individuals should be allowed to accept the risks of contracting COVID-19 if they choose to go for a haircut, play the slots or watch a movie, or to avoid those risks.
It’s not just the “buyer,” however, who must beware.
With an infectious disease — especially one where someone who carries the virus may not show symptoms for two weeks if at all — the risk is conveyed to all those who come in close contact with each individual who makes the choice to stretch the limits of the stay-home orders.
The precautions taken, particularly by the casino and the theater, can be effective in limiting the chance of transmission, but they are not foolproof. Whether it’s a 20-minute haircut or a two-hour casino visit, those participating can’t be certain they won’t be exposed to the virus or aren’t passing it along to others. Even if they feel fine.
And every instance of potential exposure adds to the risk to themselves and to others. Exceptions have been allowed, of course, for essential workers, grocery shopping and other necessary errands, but the fewer exceptions made, the better the chance to limit the spread of COVID-19.
There are signs that the risks for transmission are on a gradual decline. Both estimated and confirmed infections in Washington state are down from their mid-March highs, although confirmed infections increased between mid-April and the first week of May, according to figures from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Likewise fatalities from COVID-19 also are projected to continue their gradual decline from an estimated nine daily, currently, falling to zero by mid-July.
As those trends continue, the state is expected to launch Phase 2 of its “Safe Start” plan. Personal services — including hair salons and barbers — and other professional businesses in some counties got the go-ahead last week, with other counties following as each meets public health benchmarks. Meeting those benchmarks could come quicker as testing, contract tracing and isolation are increased.
But trends could reverse — and the plans to reopen could be jeopardized — if enough people ignore stay-at-home orders and social distancing practices, allowing COVID-19 to make a resurgence in the state.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned a Senate committee last week that if states move too quickly to reopen and ignore the federal guidelines, those states would risk “little spikes that might turn into outbreaks,” inviting additional suffering, deaths and economic hardship.
As damaging to families and businesses as those orders have been, losing control of the curve that our efforts have so far successfully flattened could be more devastating in terms of loss of life and economic distress. And a resurgence would be even more demoralizing.
For a little while longer, we need to avoid taking swings when we aren’t sure who we might hit.