Social Distancing and Cognitive Dissonance

I’ve worked from home for a few days in Seattle. My company, like many others, closed its Seattle-area offices for the month of March and is having many of its employees work from home to avoid the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19). I’m staying busy with work obligations and trying to stay active by doing a “fake commute” bike ride of about 6 miles every day.

I watched the press conference this morning with speeches by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and several other regional leaders. Gov. Inslee also took some questions after the speeches were over. The gist of the announcements were that public gatherings of more than 250 people — including the Mariners’ home opener, church services, and large weddings — would be banned in the three counties in and nearest to Seattle. Exec. Constantine also banned gatherings of fewer than 250 people in King County, which includes Seattle, unless strict public health measures were followed. A reporter in attendance asked Gov. Inslee what the penalties would be for refusing to cancel a large gathering. “You might be killing your granddad if you don’t do it,” responded the governor.

Shortly after the press conference, Seattle Public Schools chose to close schools for 14 days and the Port of Seattle cancelled the first two cruises this season. Sporting events will be played without fans in attendance, in other cities, or not at all. Performing arts venues, including Seattle Rep where I saw a well-attended performance of “Jitney” last Saturday night, are closing their doors. Hotels, restaurants, and other hospitality businesses in tourist and office areas are starting to lay off staff or close down entirely for a lack of business.

My personal experience in Seattle has been relatively unaffected: I’m staying active, seeing people in small groups, and doing my best to support local businesses. Ballard’s restaurants and shops are still serving customers, though not as many as they would normally. During the press conference’s Q&A, one reporter asked about discrimination against Asian-run businesses. My governor encouraged Washingtonians to support these businesses and noted that he himself had dined at “an Asian American restaurant” recently in a show of solidarity.

I feel a sort of cognitive dissonance in the messages I’ve been getting in Seattle. On the one hand, I’m being urged to stay home and avoid non-essential travel to prevent being a vector for a disease that I’d probably survive but that a more vulnerable person might not. On the other hand, it hurts to see businesses suffer for lack of customers. I still feel a sense of defiance by going outside, seeing other people, and having meals at local restaurants. It’s easy to consider souvenir shops and restaurants frivolous, but these are run by people who are now struggling to make rent and payroll due to a collapse in business. Without enough savings or insurance, employees might be facing eviction and homelessness in our still-nominally-prosperous city.

My next trips include a small conference in Portland that is not only still on, but being promoted, and a vacation in Denmark in late May that is starting to look questionable. My airline now offers waivers for international travel through May 31; my Denmark trip runs through June 2.

Like my leaders, I remain optimistic that we will make it through this epidemic, but the short term will be painful — not just mildly inconvenient, as it’s been for me so far. Keeping my spirits up will be as important as avoiding people with the coronavirus in person.