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A handwritten sign in the window of a red-painted apartment building surrounded by foliage reads “SF Stays Home.”
All 40 million residents of California have been ordered to stay home by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

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Why I didn’t wait for my city to order me to stay home

The choices we make to stop the spread of coronavirus today will help those closest to us tomorrow

This week, for the first time, Los Angeles County’s health department started releasing the number of COVID-19 cases by location. The places were familiar. Where I lived. Where I worked. Where my children went to school. Threaded by the public transit I rode. Seeing the numbers alongside the neighborhood names, it was suddenly clear that the novel coronavirus sweeping the globe has likely been just down the block for some time.

The federal government has issued a 15-day plan for the country to stop the spread of COVID-19, based on the newest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing guidelines: don’t go to work or school if possible, limit gatherings to 10 people, and avoid bars, restaurants, and shopping centers. In other words: stick close to home.

This incredible visualization by Harry Stevens at the Washington Post helps to explain why the next two weeks are so critical. Just watching the simulations—each dot is a person, and the interactions are randomized every time it plays—it’s clear that social distancing only really works when enough people eliminate all contact with every other person around them.

In South Korea, consider that one infected person—a single person!—may have infected a cluster of 1,000 people by participating in seemingly innocent activities like going out to lunch and attending a church service.

With so many asymptomatic carriers and so little testing, at this point, we all have to assume that we are that one infected person in South Korea, and behave accordingly.

Yet those calls to #FlattenTheCurve don’t seem to be resonating with some people who have chosen to treat this national emergency like an extended spring break or a late-season snow day.

Because there isn’t a whole lot of specific information provided about what you can and should actually do, the lack of urgency is understandable. Even six experts interviewed about the ethics of social distancing could not agree if certain activities should be avoided for those of us trying to stop the spread of COVID-19.

That’s why our family went one step further. Earlier this week, we started following the shelter-in-place order that the city of San Francisco put out, along with five other Bay Area counties. The mandatory order very clearly spells out what is allowed and what is not, listing specific instances in which you might leave your home. (Going for walks or bike rides is okay, as long as it’s with the people you’re isolating with and you stay six feet away from others.)

My own gut-check has become this: If it feels “normal” to you, it’s probably risky to others.

This was an excruciatingly difficult decision for me to arrive at, but I couldn’t figure out why until I read Tom Kludt’s story about “9/11 brain.” In the face of a national emergency, many Americans, including myself, get this idea that we can spend our way out of a crisis. As the economy reeled in the days after the September 11, 2001, leaders insisted the country was open for business and only we, the consumers, could save it.

I’ll be honest here. Even though I had spent weeks thinking about how to prepare my family and community for coronavirus, spreading my money around to local businesses was my first instinct, too. And the only real way I knew to do that was by eating and drinking at places. How else to support our neighborhood?

There are a few things you can do, of course, if you want to lend immediate financial support to your neighbors. The first is look at your calendar. Were you planning to go to shows or events that have been canceled? You can make donations to artists or nonprofits. Do you normally stop by the same coffee shop or cafe? You can buy gift cards that you can redeem later. But stay home.

You might also spend your time taking action that will help people who do not have the privilege to stay home. Cities are taking bold action to stop the spread of COVID-19 by limiting social interaction, but that must be backed by equally bold actions to pass eviction moratoriums, offer paid sick and family leave, support small businesses, establish relief centers to dispatch meals and services, build a safety net for the restaurant industry, and house a half-million unsheltered Americans. Hold your elected officials accountable—but stay home.

In the epic scope of this particular disaster, as Jon Mooallem writes in an exquisitely beautiful piece in the New York Times, staying home might feel crushingly inadequate, but it is literally the most heroic thing we can do. “We can’t afford to feel that canceling a school band concert, or suspending a basketball season, is a withering retreat; we must see them as parts of an empowered, collaborative undertaking,” he writes. “We are coming together to keep our distance.”

It’s not just staying home—it’s about making choices that enable other people around you to stay home. The best way you can help retail employees is to stay home. The best way you can help health care professionals is to stay home. The best way you can help unhoused residents is to stay home. The best way you can help elderly neighbors is to stay home. The best way you can help essential city workers is to stay home. Until the end of March, and likely most of April, we need to worry less about each other’s economic livelihood and more about each other’s lives.

That means thinking really hard about decisions like getting items delivered to your house, for example, because it means someone else has to leave their house to get to yours. Amazon has made this a little easier for everyone by limiting what it will deliver until April. When I make a choice about what I want to buy online or for local delivery, I think about those tiny gray dots bouncing around like ping pong balls in the Washington Post simulation. The fewer ping pong balls put in motion by my actions, the better for everyone.

As someone who writes about trying to stop climate change, I’ve had it drilled into my head that my individual actions will not matter. How we will actually have to elect better leaders, or litigate polluting corporations out of existence, in order to eliminate the use of fossil fuels at the scale needed to create change.

But that’s not how it works when halting the spread of an infectious disease. With coronavirus, it’s all on the individual. And we will start to see results immediately.

“This is an absolutely critical moment in our city’s history,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who, by Thursday night, had issued a similar shelter-in-place order, along with the entire state of California. “We are all first responders. This isn’t just someone else’s responsibility, but it is the responsibility of each one of us. Your actions matter, and they can and will save lives.”

That’s the truly phenomenal reward of staying home. Not only do your personal actions matter, but they will matter the most in your neighborhood. They will make a difference for all those places that you used to go every day that you are no longer going. They will not only protect lives, but they’ll protect the lives of the people who are nearest to you—your friends, your coworkers, your bus driver, your barista. Your parents. Your grandparents.

Despite the declaration of a global pandemic, the response to the novel coronavirus is local. There are places like Singapore—which has seen no deaths—where we can see just how well social distancing works. There are even specific cities within Italy which have managed to flatten their curves, despite the odds. By the end of March—and possibly sooner—we will be able to tell if our efforts are paying off.

Among the many online pleas to stay home, some of them providing much-needed levity in this life and death situation, I found myself drawn to the argument made by the authors of the #StopTheSpread pledge. “Current data suggests that COVID-19 is spread to at least two additional people by each impacted individual,” it reads. “We need our bold collective action to spread faster than this virus. Share this with at least three people in your community.”

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, which I can almost see as a giant numeral hovering over our neighborhood now, is almost certainly much higher than has been documented. Tomorrow, it will grow. I will get more worried, and I will want to do more to help. But for my family of four, staying home is providing the most exponential benefits to our community today.