If there’s any example of COVID craziness that’ll make our great-grandchildren’s heads reel, it’ll be the tale of the social distancing drones.
In several jurisdictions across this fruited plain, drones swoop out of the sky whenever they spot an errant hiker or recalcitrant beachgoer who wasn’t following lockdown orders. In a situation that’s not at all dystopian, they’d tell the lawbreakers to disperse, take a few pictures and maybe even take their temperature.
“We can say, ‘Hey, you in the blue shirt, we’re watching. And we don’t want to send deputies in, so why don’t you respect us and follow the guidelines and let’s break up this party?'” Volusia County, Florida, Sheriff Mike Chitwood told Fox News back in April.
This will seem absurd not because it’s like something out of the B-plot in a William Gibson novel. It’s because, according to the preliminary version of a study out of China, almost all of the cases of COVID-19 that were analyzed involved people who were exposed to the coronavirus indoors.
“Indoor transmission of SARS-CoV-2” was posted early last month on medRxiv, a site that distributes unpublished papers in the sciences. As such, it hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet, although its findings jibe with much of what we know about the virus thus far.
“Three hundred and eighteen outbreaks with three or more cases were identified, involving 1245 confirmed cases in 120 prefectural cities. We divided the venues in which the outbreaks occurred into six categories: homes, transport, food, entertainment, shopping, and miscellaneous,” the abstract to the study read.
“Among the identified outbreaks, 53.8% involved three cases, 26.4% involved four cases, and only 1.6% involved ten or more cases. Home outbreaks were the dominant category (254 of 318 outbreaks; 79.9%), followed by transport (108; 34.0%; note that many outbreaks involved more than one venue category). Most home outbreaks involved three to five cases.
“We identified only a single outbreak in an outdoor environment, which involved two cases.”
That’s right — out of 1,245 cases, merely two involved the virus spreading in an outdoor environment. That’s 0.16 percent.
On Thursday, The New York Times’ morning briefing email referenced the study and noted the dangers of staying indoors.
“When the coronavirus lockdowns began almost two months ago, the outdoors seemed like a scary place. It was where you could get infected by a neighbor, jogger, public bench, doorknob or any number of other things. The better move, as a popular hashtag put it, was to #StayHome,” David Leonhardt wrote.
“As more virus research has emerged, however, the outdoors has begun to look safer. It still brings risks (like those doorknobs). But they are fairly small. One study of 1,245 coronavirus cases across China found that only two came from outdoors transmission.
“Beside the research, something else has also begun to make outdoors seem more attractive. People have started to go stir crazy.
“This combination is leading to a surge of new expert advice that might be boiled down to: Get out.”
This probably should have been common sense as of a month ago, too. It wasn’t.
Instead, what we’ve had is Karens all across the country yelling at people for walking their dogs or running without a mask.
We have drones telling people on the beach, to quote Sheriff Chitwood, “Hey, you in the blue shirt, we’re watching. And we don’t want to send deputies in, so why don’t you respect us and follow the guidelines and let’s break up this party?”
We’ve seen people arrested for the crime of using the great outdoors.
That’s what the virus has reduced us to.
It’s not just conservatives that find this ridiculous, either. Consider Slate’s Shannon Palus, author of last month’s “Stop Yelling at Runners for Not Wearing Masks!”
“Given the lack of good evidence behind runners wearing masks, I can only conclude that people are using runners as scapegoats for the genuine (and understandable) anxiety they feel about going outside right now. It is nerve-wracking living in a city with other humans and their germs! It feels good to take those nerves out on someone,” she wrote.
“But for runners, the cost of following this unscientific social rule of constant masking is kind of high! Having a piece of fabric over your face makes it difficult to do the biologically necessary action of breathing heavily during a cardio workout. It feels a bit like suffocating, in fact. It is especially bad when you’re going up a hill, doing a tempo run or speed workout. But it is also bad and difficult: all of the time. Things are only going to get worse as temperatures rise and we head into a sweaty, masked summer.”
A little over a week earlier, Slate also published “Get out!” from Henry Grabar, in which he argued that allowing people outdoors for exercise was, yes, a good thing. Grabar talked to Dr. Edward Nardell, an airborne-infection specialist at the Harvard, who said that airborne outdoor transmission was “possible but improbable.”
“It bugs me to see these restrictions on people being outside,” Nardell said. “Mental health means something as well, and I can’t imagine you’re in a better place than outside if you’re going to have any contact anywhere.”
This, alas, is only Slate.
CNN employs professional fulminator Chris Cuomo, who went off on a montage of people in New York City parks in a rant earlier this month.
“But there’s also feel, fatigue. ‘I’ve had it. Season’s changing. It’s getting warm. Want to get back to it,’” Cuomo said.
“Beautiful weather does not make for a beautiful reality.”@ChrisCuomo warns “things will get worse” as governments and citizens relax social distancing measures across the nation. pic.twitter.com/7NrI6iYlOO
— CNN (@CNN) May 5, 2020
“Look at these fools. Fools,” he said. “I know they want to be out there. Fools. It’s not about you. What about the other people? And look, I’m not going to castigate you. That’s not my job. I’m not your daddy.”
You can tell, right?
Has this made us healthier? It’s early and most of this can only be deduced via common sense and not via hard numbers, but you do the math: What’s the likelihood that people are better off being cooped up indoors? Is there any marker of physical or mental health that’d be improved by this state of affairs?
Yes, this paper out of China is a preprint study, which, again, means it hasn’t been peer-reviewed. However, the likelihood that any of these outdoor interactions are making us sicker is small.
Meanwhile, the advice keeping us cooped up is pointless at best and counterproductive at worst.
In short, I hope those drones were worth it, Sheriff Chitwood. They couldn’t have been cheap for the taxpayers of Volusia County — and the cost may be a lot higher than just what you paid for them.
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