Three questions to ask instead of “Is it safe?”

Minnesota has recently gone from its “Stay Home” order to a series of “Stay Safe” guidelines for which activities to reintroduce when. Here’s an example graphic posted by our governor last week:

This type of advice puts each activity at any given time into one of two buckets: “Allowed” or “Not allowed.” And that makes sense as the sort of guideline you’d expect from a legally-minded government: laws dictate what you may or may not do. It’s much harder to enforce limits on how much of something you do, or what activities you do in combination.

However, as individuals we have to navigate not just what is permissible, but what is wise. We want to know not just “Am I allowed to do this?” but “Is it safe for me to do this?” I want to argue that the “safe or not” binary is still not the best way to approach these decisions, because categorically declaring some activities “safe” and other “unsafe” might actually be more dangerous than a nuanced plan that lets you make more fulfilling choices with less total risk. So here are three questions to ask yourself instead of “Is it safe?”

1. “How much of my contact budget does it use?”

I’ve written in the past about the various things we spend and therefore benefit from budgeting: time, money, attention, energy, etc. As long as the coronavirus is among us, we have another resource to budget: our contact with other people.

The main way the coronavirus seems to be transmitted is through the breath of an infected person. Unfortunately, much of that transmission can happen before the infected person starts showing symptoms, so we can’t assume that people who appear healthy are safe to be around. However, never being around other human beings is both extremely difficult (and not a possibility for many) and takes its own mental health toll. Fortunately, not all interactions are equally expensive from the perspective of contact budgeting.

Imagine you wear a badge like the ones that darken with radiation exposure, but instead that measures your exposure to the breath of the rest of society. What causes it to darken faster?

  • Crowded places: Being around more people at once is more expensive than being around just a few people.
  • Closed spaces: Meeting outdoors allows breath to disperse on the wind, but a poorly-ventilated indoor space recirculates breath.
  • Close contact: Literally the closer you are to a person, the more of their breath you encounter and the easier it is to catch the virus.

These are the three “C’s” that the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare advocates avoiding, though my sense is that the third is the one that by far gets the most attention: think of the six-foot spacing guidelines that are taken to apply equally whether you are shopping inside a store or waiting in line outside.

However, we can also identify more ways that some interactions are more expensive than others:

  • Number of distinct households: A gathering of 10 people, all from different households, is more social contact than two 5-person households getting together.
  • Time: Longer interactions are more expensive than shorter interactions. (If someone jogs through your six-foot bubble for a few seconds as you pass on the sidewalk, that’s much less risk than sitting down next to them for a few hours.)
  • Talking/singing: Breath from heavy vocalizing is known to contain more respiratory droplets and could therefore make it easier to spread or catch the coronavirus.
  • History: If the people you’re gathering with have themselves been in contact with many others, that’s more contact-expensive than getting together with people who have been otherwise isolated. Think about not just the number of people you’ve been in contact with, but the number of people they have too.

I’m not advocating that each of us try to numerically budget out how much contact we’ll have where (though if anyone is interested I’d be happy to discuss my thoughts on how that could work), but the idea of budgeting as a trade-off between a few expensive activities versus several cheaper ones can be useful. If you’re planning to be in a big crowd this week, you could opt for the rest of your activities to be on the very cheap end: outdoors, at a distance, and short. You might not be able to “afford” a moderately risky activity (haircuts are the classic example) this week, but maybe you will be able to after saving up some isolation. In the most extreme case that you know you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, your contact budget is all used up for the next two weeks: better quarantine completely until you know you’re safe to be around again.

Thinking in terms of budgeting can also be a helpful reminder that not everyone has the same size budget, or has the same degree of control over where they spend it. Some people’s work or family obligations use up all or most of their contact budgets, leaving little to spend elsewhere. And people at high risk for serious complications, or who regularly spend time with people who do, may have a reduced budget to start with, requiring extra contact frugality.

2. “What are some alternatives?”

Perhaps you’ve decided that a certain errand or meetup is too expensive for your contact budget. Do you have to just cancel? What if you can’t for other reasons?

In their book Decisive, Chip and Dan Heath argue that we are inclined to view decisions as yes-or-no when there are usually many options we’re ignoring. If doing something is too contact-expensive but not doing it isn’t acceptable either, what are some other choices? If you’re having trouble thinking of some alternatives, here are some questions to get you started:

  • What would this activity accomplish — what do you get out of it? (Supplies? Fun? Human interaction?) Are there other ways you can get those things? (I recently learned how to use Click-N-Ship and Schedule a Pickup to send packages without visiting the post office, which is a great relief!)
  • What are the most contact-expensive aspects of the activity? Can you change them to spend less of your contact budget? You could move a meeting outdoors, wear masks, shorten the length.
  • Is it something you can postpone? Doing all the same things but more spread out in time reduces the rate at which the virus could spread from person to person undetected.

3. “What would happen if there is an outbreak?”

One final question doesn’t relate to the safety of any particular activity, but to the safety of society as a whole. What would the plan be if someone tests positive soon enough after the activity that they were likely to have already been contagious? Would you or the event host be able to contact everyone else who was there, to warn them they may in turn be infected and/or contagious?

This is a subtler point to worry about than the first two, because it’s not about reducing risk to you, the attendee. You’ll still have either caught it or not, whether or not it’s possible to let you know. Rather, it’s about reducing risk to those around you if you are infected. Another way to put it is: it may not matter to you if your gatherings have a plan in place for contacting their attendees, but it definitely matters to you if your friends’ gatherings do!

For organized events, consider asking the host to announce ahead of time how they’ll let people know if an attendee later gets sick. (Having the message come from the host can protect both the privacy of the infected and the safety of everyone else!) Or if you find yourself spending more than a few minutes around strangers (and if you feel comfortable doing so) you could exchange phone numbers in case you later need to alert each other that you’ve been exposed.

In short, if you find yourself trying to decide whether some activity is too unsafe for you, try asking instead:

  1. How much of my contact budget does it use?
  2. What are some alternatives?
  3. What would happen if there is an outbreak?

If you use any thought processes like these (or different ones!) to decide what you do in light of the pandemic, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Three questions to ask instead of “Is it safe?”

    1. The all or nothing false dichotomy is such a dangerous oversimplification. It reminds me of the beginning of Brené Brown’s Rising Strong where she writes “[W]hen faced with either-or dilemmas, the first question we should ask is, Who benefits by forcing people to choose?

      Liked by 1 person

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