Apocalypse: Now What? What to do with social-distance violators

Hint: Don't call 911.

picnics at gasworks.

People gather at Gas Works Park, April 9, 2020, in Seattle. On March 20, Seattle and King County announced measures to limit active recreation in parks, such as sports courts and playgrounds, to promote social distancing. (Sarah Hoffman/Crosscut)

Coronavirus has changed our reality for the foreseeable future, prompting questions from you about how to navigate our strange new normal. In this new weekly column, we hope to answer them with practical advice, ideas and solutions. Ask your question at the bottom of this story.

Question: What do I do if I see other people recreating outside and NOT following social distancing? Should I call 911?


Let me elaborate a little: Hell no! 911 is for literal emergencies; keep the line clear for those, especially right now when medical and other essential personnel are stretched to the brink. Imagine how first responders will feel, all kitted up in potentially dodgy or makeshift PPE, managing their spiking levels of cortisol by blasting Carly Rae Jepsen in the ambo — only to show up and find a group of sweaty teenagers playing basketball. How would you feel? 

That said, if it’s a particularly risky or persistent violation, you can file a nonemergency complaint with the state on its coronavirus website. You can report businesses that might be violating ordinances or closures here

It also must be said that I understand the frustration and sympathize. I’ve been swarmed from behind by a pod of coughing joggers after diligently avoiding humans on my daily circumambulations, and I’ve felt a jealous ulcer sprout in my gut while watching a scruffy group of dirtbags load up a van with a week’s worth of camping equipment. But I try to put on my compassion filter: It’s in such short supply these days, and so sorely needed. We can’t know all the details of a person’s journey to coronavirus knowledge or solidarity without talking to them — which, incidentally, is also something you can do, politely and compassionately. Big ask for us gelid Northwesterners, talking to strangers, but these are strange times. 

You may be blown off, insulted, ignored. But maybe if it happens enough, they come over. And if they don’t, consider making a donation to a food bank or relief fund, or donating blood or plasma, in the violator’s name, which you can make up to hilarious effect. Joke’s on them. 

RELATED: Face masks and coronavirus: When, how and why to wear them

Question: If my neighbor and I have not left the house since March 8 and nobody has been in my house, do we need to wear a mask when sitting outside my house together? Can we still get the virus?

We are all discovering one of the most vexing things about surviving a pandemic: juggling the surfeit of unknowns. We all desperately seek foolproof formulas to stay safe, normal, or as close to it as we can get. “(X + face mask) x Y - crippling paranoia = not dying / going cuckoo-bananas.” 

Sadly, few exist. Gaps in knowledge about the virus that would inform our responses to it are filling, but not fast enough — which makes answering your question without more context difficult. Instead, the game is all about mitigating risk. We will all have to get really good at doing this; it’s a theme I expect to return to a whole bunch in the course of this column.

Without perfect formulas and solutions, the complex interplay of public and personal risk mitigation is the key to keeping the highest possible number of people healthy and alive. (It’s true that managing risk to public health needs to exist in balance with the things that keep us mentally healthy, like seeing a neighbor outside. But for now, I’d argue the scales should tip rather heavily toward personal and public health.)  

The best place to start is by asking better questions, which can reduce your unknowns and, in turn, inform better choices. This may sound like overkill when we’re talking about just a mask, but getting into the habit of interrogating your risk on the small stuff is great practice for when the big stuff comes. And as we all know now, the big stuff comes for everyone.

First: Do you know the general rules of masks — when to wear them, how to make them, what to avoid? If not, Crosscut’s Margo Vansynghel has a comprehensive guide of do’s and don’ts.

Next. You mention you’ve stayed alone in your house since March 8. What about your neighbor? You don’t say if they’ve been similarly isolated, or if they have family or roommates who may or may not be practicing faithful social isolation. Are they (or anyone they live with or plan to see) compromised or at higher risk? These are some of the most important things to know. Find out for sure.

By “sitting outside together,” what do you mean? Are they coming to sit on your porch? Blasting Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me while co-victory gardening 30 feet apart? Or are they just peering over the fence in a bucket hat to drop you unsolicited wisdom bombs, a la Wilson Wilson? Will you be able to maintain social distance, regardless of your activity?

Answering these questions is an essential start to mitigating your risk. You won’t have a perfect formula, but hopefully you can begin to make choices that prioritize the health of you, your neighbor and the community. 

I’m deeply hesitant to make an official recommendation without knowing those answers. (Also, I'm not any sort of official, as far as I know. Sorry.) Early data hints that social distancing seems to be working here and throughout the country, which seems to indicate that meeting outside while maintaining a proper 6 feet (oh, hell, make it 12) could be OK. But without knowing more about the particulars or who might be at risk, and with so much about the virus’ aerosol spread up in the air (literally, terrifyingly), playing it truly safe would mean masking up. You would also be helping normalize mask wearing as an act of public courtesy, service and solidarity. 

Unless your neighbor is Wilson, in which case I’d advise you to stay inside. That guy is the worst.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez is formerly an editor at Crosscut and KCTS 9 focused on science and the environment.