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As our world reopens, can I trust you to keep me safe from the coronavirus?

In late April in Huntington Beach, a crowd heads to the beach without social distancing or masks.
In late April in Huntington Beach, a crowd heads to the beach without social distancing or masks.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Are you ready to accept the ever-present risk of the coronavirus as you jump back into a newly reopened big world?

I want to be. I’d love to be. I want to help save businesses and jobs. I want to get out into my city again.

I’d love to trust that we’re all going to head out to do these things responsibly, taking every step we can to protect one another.

But I don’t feel able to take that leap of faith just yet, based on the behavior I see around me.

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I’m not just talking about the images of last weekend’s crowds, many in them not wearing masks, on the Venice Beach boardwalk and the trails of Eaton Canyon — though I find that level of disregard for our current peril hard to fathom.

I’m talking about the casual disregard for the pandemic’s dangers I see manifested every day in the small neighborhood world that has been my whole world since mid-March.

Each time I venture out from home, I see a lot of people practicing good safety measures. But I see just as many people who don’t seem to be taking our mutual safety seriously. They can’t be bothered to follow clearly stated directions. They don’t take mandated precautions.

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And I know what I’m seeing is not an anomaly. I get similar reports from other observers all over the area.

Reopening is predicated on the notion that we will all go forth acting in the best interests of our collective well-being, as Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer keeps telling us.

“There is a lot at stake as we reopen,” Ferrer said this week. “More people being around one another can result in more transmission of COVID-19, which is more cases and likely more hospitalizations and deaths. This is why it couldn’t be more important for us to take care of each other when we’re out of our homes.”

But out of my home, when I go out walking, I don’t have full confidence that we’ll live up to this ideal.

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I see plenty of unmasked people out on busy stretches of sidewalk where they are guaranteed to pass plenty of other people.

No matter that putting on a face covering when out among others is now required by the city and county. No matter that doing so can help us reduce transmission of a virus that we know can be spread by asymptomatic people who have no idea that they have it. No matter that it’s easy to find face coverings that you can wear around your neck and pull up to cover your face as needed, when other people are near.

Do they resist because they don’t believe the risks are real? Because they don’t like being told what to do? Because they’re sick of the restrictions and have called time’s up on caring? Because they feel invulnerable — as I know I once did when I was young?

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I don’t presume to know their thinking, but I’m willing to give them a pass if they’re taking pains to stay out of everyone’s way — to keep themselves even more than the recommended six feet away from others. More often than not, though, I find that they aren’t.

They don’t try to protect us. They leave it to the rest of us not just to protect them but to dodge them or contort our bodies to stay out of their way. (When unmasked people approach me without giving way on narrow sidewalks, I frequently jump into the street — grateful that traffic still is lighter than normal.)

And it’s not just the mask orders that people are flouting. It’s also other well-publicized safety instructions in places where masks are required for entry.

Wearing face coverings and distancing go hand in hand. Doing one doesn’t obviate the need to do the other. Both my supermarket and my farmers market have worked hard to remind people to keep their distance from one another — taping and chalking lines on the ground as guides. The Hollywood Farmers Market draws big arrows on the pavement to try to get people to minimize crowding by walking up the market on one side of the street and down it on the other.

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But so many people pay no mind, either to those instructions or to basic distancing.

I come back from both markets exhausted from all the defensive maneuvering and social awkwardness required. How do you tell a person politely to not stand so close, to back off a little? I have yet to find the proper etiquette that makes such a request feel comfortable to me and guarantees that it will be received with good grace.

So, no, I don’t think I’m ready yet to just see what happens if I go shopping at an indoor mall or eat out at a restaurant, which just became possible again. I want to do these things to help the economy — but I won’t until I’m confident that they won’t greatly add to our societal risk.

L.A. County, after all, remains the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in California. More than 2,200 people here have died of the virus — which adds up to more than half of the deaths statewide so far. We have more than 51,000 COVID-19 cases here, which is nearly half the cases in the state.

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Yes, our number of hospitalized patients appears to be holding steady at this moment. And yes, testing now is widely available. But people are still getting sick from the virus. People are still dying from it every single day. A vaccine probably remains a long way off. The information we get about symptoms and what’s safe and what isn’t safe keeps changing. And just because our hospitals have yet to be overwhelmed doesn’t mean that they won’t if we handle all this reopening badly.

Which is what I fear will happen if we don’t all accept the seriousness of the risk we are taking. And my guess is that the mere fact that we’re reopening will lead more people, not less, to act as if we no longer have anything to worry about.

As I said, I still haven’t found quite the right turns of phrase to very politely tell people ignoring the safety basics to stop doing so. But I think we all have to find ways to convey this message, now more than ever, if we want to move forward, not backward, together.


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