Now is the Time to be a Rule-Follower

What protests, Henry David Thoreau, and casserole dishes have to do with the coronavirus response


Laura Madler

In a health crisis, following the rules matters more than ever.

For the past month-and-a-half of social distancing, most Americans have been battening the hatches and staying in their homes with gusto. Bread has been baked, books have been read, and online yoga classes have been attempted with varying degrees of success. We’ve been vigilant about take-out food, delivery shopping, and carrying out any and all social business through the omnipotent Zoom Communications. The past seven weeks have been a demonstration of that unique American ability to pull together and rally around the nation during a time of crisis.

But we’ve also seen another side of the American spirit rear its head in protest these past few weeks- disobedience.

Flipping through any history textbook will show that stubbornness and resistance to authority are fairly common elements to this country’s continual development. From the first crates of tea in the Boston Harbor to decades of marches on Washington, that firm, heels-in-the-ground spirit has shaped and changed a nation. Standing up and saying “no” is intrinsic to American interaction with government and to the preservation of personal freedoms. It was Henry David Thoreau who cemented the term in our culture, “civil disobedience.”

Now that I have your attention, let me be very clear- this is not a matter of civil disobedience. 

Protesting stay-at-home orders, hosting parties with your friends, going on spring break trips or out to crowded functions- this is not the righteous resistance of our history textbooks, this is negligence.

Let us put this in perspective. When Henry David Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience,” he wrote about spending the night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax. He did not want his money to be used by the government to perpetuate current injustices in society, namely the institution of slavery and the Mexican-American War. In refusing to pay, Thoreau harmed no one with his actions; he peacefully made his point and complied with the consequential night in jail.

Now let’s take a look at current resistance. People who get together and ignore social distancing protocols, like wearing masks and keeping six feet of interpersonal distance, risk spreading or contracting the coronavirus. A foolish night out could turn into weeks of illness, and a trip out-of-town could put people in the hospital. As we’ve seen in the news, the consequences of breaking the rules in a public health crisis are not equivalent to a few dollars lost on a nineteenth-century poll tax. Civil disobedience is neither civil nor peaceful when others are put at risk as result. Demonstrations, large-scale and small, that put the health and safety of innocent people at risk are simply not justifiable.

And what about demonstrations that do follow safety protocols? After all, many protests have made use of vehicular demonstrations and online presence to argue against current lockdown measures. On a technical level, these actions do not violate health protocols, and as result do not put others at direct risk. With no immediate danger of disease transmission, participants have defended this sort of protest, deeming it a safe and necessary exercise in order to fight against the infringement of civil liberties by government measures. Technically, Americans have every right to do this.

But again, I ask you to think about the consequences- not direct, necessarily, but long-term. What protesters want is a return to “normalcy” by any means necessary, and it’s not difficult to see why. The economy is in recession, businesses are closing, and people across the nation are losing their jobs due to states’ shift to lockdown of nonessential businesses. With so much economic pressure and backlash from protesters, governments may be tempted to roll back COVID restrictions and provide some short-term economic relief- but here lies a far greater danger for the path of the disease. As tempting as it is, we cannot force a return to normalcy too soon, otherwise the future looks something like this:

Imagine the world is a casserole dish. Under normal conditions, the dish sits on the kitchen counter at room-temperature, undisturbed. Suddenly, a pandemic swells up and we all hit freeze on our normal lives. Social distancing is enacted and people aren’t bustling around and interacting- the casserole dish goes into the freezer. Now let’s say that these restrictions are rolled back all at once, as soon as the case numbers start dropping and the measures appear to be working. People excitedly go back to shopping and partying and attending large functions- the dish goes into a hot oven of activity. And what happens there, my chefs? Thermal shock- the casserole dish shatters.

If we as a society attempt to go back to our pre-COVID standards all at once, we almost certainly worsen the disease trajectory. Increased interactions will make the disease hard to contain over the summer, and by fall- the slated time for all these large event makeups and re-openings- the second wave, with the added problems of cold and flu season, could be crippling. The United States could take this dish straight from the freezer to the oven and see what happens, or the country can be safe and opt for a slow, progressive warm-up to room temperature. We must remember that cutting time on social distancing now means making it up with worse consequences in the future.

Our city, our state, our country- we cannot set ourselves up for failure. This pandemic is a long haul, not something that we can give our all for a few months and then abandon. We have done well in the face of extreme difficulty, and of course we all want things to be normal again, but we must continue to be vigilant. Our personal freedoms must, for a time, be adjusted for the good of society as a whole. We must embrace not American disobedience, but American unity and perseverance.

Now, dear readers, is the time to be a rule-follower.