Column: Coronavirus social distancing holdouts put us all at risk. What part of ‘deadly pandemic’ don’t they get?

Friends play basketball at Sierra Madre Park despite closure
Friends play a game of one-on-one basketball despite posted warnings that the Sierra Madre Park grounds are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

How can it be that there are still so many social distancing holdouts, people who refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of the coronavirus and move through the world with a pre-pandemic blitheness?

Empty streets can be deceiving. They do not necessarily mean that all of us who have the luxury of doing so are safely at home doing all we can to contain the contagion.

So many people don’t have the choice to stay home. They have essential jobs staffing our hospitals and our food markets, driving our buses, delivering our mail. I am not talking about them.


But you don’t have to go far to find those who do have the choice but still aren’t making the effort to follow the new rules aimed at our mutual safety.

Take a walk. Head to the supermarket. Read about the nonessential smoke shop that refused to shut down even when ordered by police.

The coronavirus shutdowns took a lot of us by surprise. We should have been prepared

March 17, 2020

When I go out into my neighborhood, as I still am able to do each day to escape from my house and stretch my legs and breathe fresh air, I take great pains to stay at least six feet away from everyone else — even if that means sometimes jumping onto a lawn or into the street. I now wear a homemade mask to try to protect others, though I pull it down from time to time on a solitary walk when there’s no one else anywhere near me.

Commuters catch a bus at 7th and Alvarado streets in Westlake
Commuters crowd to catch a bus at 7th and Alvarado streets in Westlake.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

But unmasked runners who have staked out the dead center of a sidewalk whoosh past me without warning or effort to make space. I see construction crews everywhere, working shoulder to shoulder, wearing masks — if they have them — on top of their heads like tiny clown hats. People still zigzag on the streets, staring at their cellphones, earbuds in, oblivious to others. Many seem to think that, if they’ve got on masks and gloves, social distancing isn’t required of them.


Even a trip to my friendly neighborhood supermarket has come to feel to me like a rough game of dodgeball, where everyone’s hurtling my way, moving too fast, grabbing for the last paper towels, and I can’t get myself out of their range because of the narrowness of the aisles.

For a short while, social distancing maybe felt a little bit over the top. Holing up, at least for the luckier ones among us, maybe felt more like an adventure in homesteading or glamping than an essential act of survival. But that was in that halcyon time several weeks ago when we were still rejoicing in our shedded commutes and in our increased family togetherness. When we were celebrating community and creativity rather than dwelling on angst. When cutout hearts in windows and chin-up messages scrawled in chalk still were enough to cheer us up and keep fear at bay.

I couldn’t love #mydayinla more than I do right now, in the midst of this isolating and potentially terribly lonely coronavirus crisis.

March 26, 2020

That was before the word even from the White House grew dire, before our federal government told us that, if we do a really good job of social distancing and containment, we might see `only 100,000 to 240,000 Americans die.

How do we process such numbers? I know I’ve had a hard time lately.

Friends meet in parking lot at Westfield Valencia Town Center while keeping distance
Maggie Medina, left, Juanita Gomez and Vanessa Reagan tailgate in the parking lot at the Westfield Valencia Town Center to meet while keeping their distance.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

In the light of day, I reach out to people. I try to reassure them. I try to boost their spirits. We’ll make it, I say. We’ll get through this together.

But at night, more and more frequently, I stay up too late and then jolt awake too early out of fear.

Fear that those I know and love will get sick. Fear that those I know and love will die. Fear that those who have the least will suffer the most, often without the comfort of others. Fear that the relatively few who still are failing to act with care will continue to imperil the lives of the many.

I know a lot of people are experiencing the strain of this duality — trying to stay positive while increasingly anxious.

These are some of the unusual new scenes across the Southland during the coronavirus outbreak.

May 6, 2020

And I’m guessing that for some, ignoring our situation’s seriousness is a coping mechanism along the lines of, if I don’t see the virus, it won’t see me.

And that would be fine if ignoring the problem only affected the ignorer.

But we know that it doesn’t.

We’ve all heard about the Sacramento church that continued to hold services and is now linked to more than 70 confirmed coronavirus cases, about the deadly toll on a Washington state choir that rehearsed even as people were dying of the virus an hour’s drive south in Seattle.

We’ve heard about the likely links between Mardi Gras and the quick spread of coronavirus in New Orleans, between spring break parties and outbreaks in Florida. It’s hard to avoid absorbing ample evidence that even small crowds can lead to big spreads — and yet we still crowd in together even in spaces where we don’t have to and then moan when our beaches and our park trails are shut down.

We’ve also heard, I hope, that following the rules can make a difference, that it appears to be doing so here in our own state.

I closely observe the world around me. I observe many people trying their hardest. Some of my neighbors are staying inside so completely that days go by when I don’t even see them on the street and I know I have to email, text or call to make sure they’re still OK. I also observe people acting carelessly — and I say so now when I have to, when their actions endanger me, though I know they are outside my control.

What is within my control is what I do myself — which makes me increasingly grateful for my home and heartbroken for those who don’t have one.

At home, I can control my environment. I can scrub down my counters and wash my hands as often as I like. I can keep my front door firmly shut, no visitors.

I can make sure that doing the right thing for me, I am also doing the right thing for all.