The Georgetown professor was groggy, still tucked under her comforter when her research began. Robin Dillon-Merrill reached for her phone at 7 a.m., thumbed the screen and refreshed the death toll once again. She checked the Monday morning news, where government officials were debating and protesters were demanding the “reopening” of the country.
Her job is to study the choices people make during times of uncertainty, and here was another week in the most uncertain time of all, when everyone, every day, is asking the question she has spent her entire career on: How much risk are we willing to take?
In the six weeks since COVID-19 turned a nation into a national emergency, Americans have grown accustomed to calculating the risk level of every choice. Who to see, what protection to wear, what time to go to the grocery store. But for most, the biggest decisions have been made for them: businesses, open or shut; workers, essential or not. Now, with pantries and patience running low, our attention has turned to what comes next. Craving it, dreading it or something in between. Wondering, when the restrictions start to lift, will we still restrict ourselves?
“It’s you who has to make the risk trade-off,” says Dillon-Merrill, who teaches business at Georgetown. “What are the benefits; what are the risks; what is the likelihood; what are the consequences? How bad could this be?”
This was the deliberation playing out in the White House and in governors’ mansions, on corporate conference calls and at kitchen tables. A new day in a new week brought new calculations, new decisions to be made.
“This is not working,” thought Amy Phillips, a mental health counselor and mother of four in Elkridge, Maryland, who was in the middle of a virtual appointment with a client Monday when her 5-year-old started screaming about pizza, her 15-year-old chased after him, the 3-year-old followed and the 9-month-old began to cry. Her husband was in his office, the door locked. Something needed to change. Just how risky would it be, she wondered, to bring in a babysitter?
“I want to see you,” Austin’s new love interest told him. The 29-year-old government worker, who asked that his last name not be used, wanted to see her, too. They met on the dating app Bumble just before the pandemic began. They had held hands but hadn’t kissed. In six weeks, they have gone on eight “dates” — virtual dinner, virtual backgammon, virtual wine-and-coloring session. Now they were debating. Could they — should they — find a way to meet in person? “But on the other hand,” she said, “I want to stay alive.”
“Sometimes, I have panic attacks,” confided Ingrid Contreras Martinez, 19, a cashier at Washington, D.C.’s, only Burger King. For weeks she eyed every customer, searching for sickness. But it was her co-workers who showed symptoms first. Then it was her, coughing. For 10 days she has been quarantined in her bedroom to protect her mother and sister, who were depending on her income to pay the rent in May. The test results would come back Monday. Positive would be scary. But negative would force her to decide if she will go back to work.
How much risk are we willing to take? The answer, decades of research on the subject shows, depends on our perception of likelihood and consequences.
Likelihood: A factor dependent on what you know about the virus and its impact, which is dependent on where you’re getting that information. Jason Sellars, 48, barely had time to check the news Monday as he renovated the back porch of his home in Shady Side, Maryland. To him the news meant Fox, Dr. Oz or Facebook. That’s where Sellars, who installs fuel tanks for a living, learned about a protest in Annapolis to demand Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan reopen the state’s economy. He and his wife decided to join the Saturday caravan of drivers waving American and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. They are tired of the government telling people how to live their lives. They want their daughter, who is in the restaurant business, to be able to work again.
“I blame the media — they inflame everything,” Sellars said. “It’s going to pass like everything else.”
Consequences: A factor dependent not just on our own choices but the actions of everyone around us. Annette Brown, 32, is afraid of what could happen if people don’t stay home. Patients filling hospital rooms, bodily fluids on the floor, the whir of machines keeping people alive, and now, more risk for her.
Brown works as a night shift custodian at a Kaiser Permanente facility in suburban Baltimore, where she cleans a floor typically reserved for surgeries. But last week, Brown said, her boss told her they were turning the floor into a COVID-19 unit. She stepped out to call her brother, unable to stop her tears.
“Now I don’t even know what I’m going to be walking into,” she said. “This job’s not worth my life.”
The doctors and nurses get prioritized for protective equipment such as caps, gowns and disposable booties to cover their feet, she said, but cleaning staff often have less protection to go into the same rooms.
On Monday night, her first shift of the week, she saw the gold markings on the doors of the rooms she needed to clean. Gold means COVID-positive. She thought of her 11-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. She tried to take a deep breath through her N95 mask before stepping inside.
That was the thing about fear. It can feel like it is sitting on your chest and making it hard to breathe — and shortness of breath is a symptom, right? Yes, but it’s OK; this time it’s just a feeling.
Elvis Tifang’s housemates, his cousins, keep inviting people over despite his objections. They live in Prince George’s County, which has the most COVID-19 cases in Maryland. That’s why Tifang, a 36-year-old pharmacy student, stopped driving for Uber, losing his only income. Now, as soon as his cousins’ friends leave, he sprays disinfectant everywhere.
“I’m scared of being outside,” Tifang said, after finishing his grocery shopping at Wegmans on Monday afternoon. “I’m scared of being in my car. I sleep a lot. I sleep during the day. I stay up at night. Everything is reversed. Everything is a risk. Life is not normal.”
When will life be normal again? If 16-year-old Ben had to guess, he would say six or seven months from now. For the rest of the country, anyway. But even then, he will still be sheltering in his family’s Northern Virginia apartment, still getting groceries delivered, still exiting only for once-a-day walks in carefully chosen neighborhoods.
His mother, who asked that only Ben’s first name be included, will stay inside with her son until there’s a vaccine.
Because last year, Ben went into cardiac arrest at school. Then came the diagnosis, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Ben had to stop learning how to drive and walking up the stairs at school. He learned the meaning of risk long before his friends. Now their lives resemble his. Nobody can play sports. Nobody can ride roller coasters. “They’re losing all these things,” he said, “but I already lost them.”
How do we measure the things we have lost, and what we would risk to have them back? The big things and the little things, and the little things that feel big. Family vacations. Meet cutes. Audience laughter. Hugs and funerals and prom and bingo and:
Recess. On Monday, 10-year-old Simran Rai used what should have been the time for a game of tag at her Fairfax County, Virginia, elementary school to open her laptop to a document titled “Songs and poems — Coronavirus edition.”
“The grass is screaming,” she had written in one. “Come out and play.” When her parents finally say she is allowed, she will run as fast as she can to her best friend’s house, she said, and maybe they will work on a puzzle together.
And baseball. What Washington Nationals season ticket holder Ellen Clair Lamb, 54, misses most about it is the order. A guaranteed nine innings, three outs for each side. The rules and rituals, the unwritten codes. Her least favorite part of this pandemic is the lack of order, giving her no way to plan. She barely leaves her Arlington, Virginia, apartment. Even if she could plan for baseball this season, even if the stadiums reopened, she isn’t sure she would go. It might be too dangerous.
And manicures. Natalie James, 53, a sales director working from her Montgomery Village, Maryland, home, looked down at her wine-colored acrylics, overgrown and pushed upward, the gaps in her cuticles a reminder of how she has felt every day of quarantine: out of sync.
“I need something to get out of my pajama ponytail funk,” she said. “I need something normal again.”
She had seen friends posting photos of freshly manicured nails, courtesy of mobile nail salon services. She found one run by a woman named Sharonda Wood, who always wore a mask and gloves and carefully sanitized her tools.
James felt guilty even thinking about spending $85 for a manicure and pedicure, when millions of people were losing their jobs and thousands were losing their lives. It was a risk. But was it a bigger risk than a trip to the grocery store? Or running into neighbors on a walk?
On Monday, Sharonda Wood was in her living room. James put on a mask and picked a color: a brilliant turquoise that would keep her spirits lifted for two more weeks, until her next appointment.
Her choices, the professor of risk would say, are a case study in the most common equation for risk analysis: cost vs. benefit, pro vs. con. But what do we call it when the choice feels like it doesn’t exist? For the emergency room nurse who has run out of maternity leave, the UPS driver with rent due in less than two weeks, the plumber whose phone is ringing because someone has decided that their situation is urgent and worth exposing themselves to a stranger for, and can he please come soon?
Before Abrahim Ayoub could fix the drain pipes beneath a tub in Alexandria, Virginia, on Monday, he disinfected the door handles of his truck, the steering wheel, his mask, tools, gloves and finally, his hands. They ache from how often he washes them. Each time Ayoub enters a home, he knows his level of risk depends on the choices of the people inside. He enters anyway.
“I am a worker,” Ayoub said. “People need plumbing. The way I have to do it now is not normal, but I’m getting used to it. It’s hard to remember what jobs were like before all this.”
Right now, he’s getting half the calls he usually gets. When things start to open again, he says, business will pick back up.
More clients, more stability. More clients, more risk. Personal trainers and hair stylists, waitresses and receptionists, day-care workers and flight attendants, so many jobs in that impossible middle, the place where tow truck driver Patrick Ray felt stuck.
On Monday, an Acura skidded off Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia and was hanging from the guardrail by its bumper. Ray knew how to drive the heavy-duty wrecker truck with a crane. He felt lucky to get any call, with so few drivers on the road. The economy, he said, can’t remain shut down much longer.
“It could end up being worse,” he said. “People need to figure out what their risk is, and what’s best for them.”
Then he thought of how the risks he takes are risks to his older co-workers, to his 10-year-old with asthma.
“Every day,” he said, “I just hope it disappears.”
But when he scrolled through his phone Monday night, the headlines were still dire. The professor of risk refreshed her browser again before bed, to see more than 1,800 new deaths recorded across the country.
South Carolina had announced its retail stores could open Tuesday. The governor of Georgia declared the state would allow dine-in restaurants, bowling alleys, nail salons and gyms to reopen Friday. The mayor of Las Vegas, who calls her state’s lockdown “total insanity,” argued for every casino to be reopened. In Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, though, decisions about what comes next still seemed weeks away, at least for those in power.
For Amy Phillips, the mother of four, the choice had been made. When she was done seeing therapy clients, she waited for her kids to have a moment of calm. Then she texted a former babysitter, pleading for her to come back.
Austin and his Bumble date decided not to meet in person. Not even for a socially distant walk. Their friends talked them out of it. Their next date: a virtual museum tour.
Ingrid Contreras Martinez, the Burger King cashier, got a call from her doctor. Her coronavirus test came back negative.
She squeezed her little sister into a hug, making it last. Her mother whooped with relief. Then she picked up her phone and dialed Burger King, asking when she could start again.