Coronavirus Conundrum: Open Up or Keep Things Closed?

COMMENTARY: All judgments should be based upon a sober assessment of what is most likely to cause the least unwanted harms while achieving the greatest wanted social benefits. Whatever safety measures are needed to protect people should be enforced.

A sign hangs outside Holy Family Catholic Church Easter morning, April 12, in South Pasadena, California.
A sign hangs outside Holy Family Catholic Church Easter morning, April 12, in South Pasadena, California. (photo: Harry How/Getty Images)

These reflections are probably a little late, since lockdown restrictions are easing around the country, but we may still find ourselves divided between “open-uppers” and “lock-downers.” Both have good reasons for their views, and neither denies the value of the other’s side. The open-uppers aren’t saying: “Who cares if more people catch the virus — who cares about a second wave!” And the lock-downers aren’t saying: “Quarantine fatigue is a fiction, so shut up and stay home!”

Both know we’re dealing with risks of unwanted side effects. If we keep things locked to protect against the virus’s transmission, we risk greater economic disorder, more serious food shortages, higher rates of suicide and domestic abuse, exaggerated health problems and more dangerous isolation. If we open up too early, we risk undoing the hard-earned gains of the last 50 days, reigniting contamination rates and causing a worse state of affairs than the first.

How do our communities decide whether to open up or stay closed? We need to rely on our civic leaders. Some might be tempted to resist this; after all, it is an election year, and many civic leaders are politicians with a future election to consider. But since our civic leaders have the widest access to the facts needed to make good decisions, they deserve our attention, docility and input. Experts especially should be solicitous to give input.

At the same time, civic leaders should follow the principle of solidarity: federal officials, drawing widely on informed input, offering general guidelines to governors; governors translating them into conditional guidelines for local officials, who make the final decision about what groupings and events should be permitted.

For example, the feds say to governors: “Social distancing should be respected by all”; governors say to local officials: “Public events with more than 20 (30, 40, 50, ?) where social distancing cannot be maintained are not permitted” (or not without approval); local officials then work with community leaders, such as bishops, principals, chamber of commerce members, librarians, museum curators and others to make good decisions as to whether gatherings within their constituencies can reasonably enforce social distancing.

At every level, public officials should draw on all available relevant information to come to good judgments about a staggered reopening within their communities (a “de-escalation of the lockdown”).

All judgments should be based upon a sober assessment of what is most likely to cause the least unwanted harms while achieving the greatest wanted social benefits. Social benefit right now means permitting people as much freedom as reasonably possible to reclaim normality in their lives.

We must reject the utilitarian “whatever it takes” principle in favor of a firm resolve to do only what’s good (e.g., no storming churches during Mass with armed police; or refusing to treat seniors and coronavirus patients; or lying about statistics and other important facts; or cloaking religious discrimination behind the garb of protective measures).

But even being unwilling to do evil doesn’t solve all problems, since whatever good decisions are made are likely to cause unwanted evils (harms).

In the following, I offer a few additional — though very incomplete — thoughts on the question.

Places and events most closely connected to people’s welfare should be the first to reopen. The top four include:

 

Churches

Among the first surely includes the reopening of our houses of worship. Although the religious lockdown was made with the best intentions, it’s time to open.

Some risks are licit to accept, and some we have a duty to accept, when pursuing the most important goods, and people’s living faith and moral lives, both threatened by isolation, are such goods.

Just as we haven’t locked down hospitals by refusing entrance to needy patients, we should no longer lock down churches, refusing entrance to penitents. And just as front line medical personnel have accepted heightened risk to do their jobs, priests should accept heightened risks to care for souls.

Whatever safety measures — short of lockdown — are needed to protect people should be enforced. Applying the subsidiarity principle mentioned above, bishops should develop creative guidelines for guiding parish reopenings and parishioners’ behaviors. Guidelines may include:

  • Individuals and family cohorts maintaining social distancing in parking lots and pews
  • Facemasks worn by all, including lectors and priests, excepting communicants
  • Communion distributed with sterile gloves
  • Ministers of Communion sanitizing hands between communicants
  • No music so books don’t need to be handled
  • Using a digital breviary or missal on smartphones so missalettes don’t need handling
  • Increased number of Sunday services so smaller populations can be maintained at each service
  • Outdoor Masses
  • Outdoor confessions with masks
  • Indoor confessions with antibacterial spray and a stack of paper towels so each penitent can spray the kneeler and knob and wipe down the screen.
  • No holy hugs, only holy hand waves

              As our churches reopen, bishops should make clear that attending Mass in person is (for the time being) optional, not required for the fulfillment of one’s Catholic’s Sunday obligation, and that people should make the best decisions they can about attending live liturgies based upon their own risk situations. Priests should help their parishioners make good decisions in this regard.

The elderly, of course, should be encouraged to be most cautious; and Church ministers should be most solicitous to ensure as many as possible who cannot attend live Masses receive home visits and Holy Communion.

At the same time, every Catholic who doesn’t attend live Mass should undertake some religious practice on Sundays (for approximately the amount of time they’d spend at Mass) for the good of their souls and fulfillment of their religious obligations.

Finally, bishops should not turn the reopening into a litigation-avoiding affair, by putting the diocesan general counsel in charge of instituting rules and caveats to be read at Masses. If they do, people will know it, and it will alienate souls from the Church.

 

Economy and Transportation

If not already open, we should first open businesses that supply the economy: trucking, shipping ports, factories, construction companies and sites, wholesale suppliers.

Then businesses that supply daily needs: e.g., banking, supermarkets, pharmacies.

Then businesses that supply unessential services: restaurants, tourism, hair salons.

Public recreation areas (parks and beaches): These are important for people’s mental health. Some cities have recommended closing down streets to allow people to go outside while keeping safe distances.

 

Schools

Higher education: Most institutions have continued via online.

Secondary education: Schools that have been shut down and haven’t gone online may consider implementing summer online programs to make up material. Parental support is essential for success at this level of education. And parents must be responsible for their children going to virtual class and completing assignments.

Primary schools should be the last to reopen since small children are least reliable to engage in safety measures and since children must rely on adults to protect them from being exposed to unnecessary risks.

 

Final Thoughts

Everyone should be prepared to engage in social distancing for the rest of the summer, wearing masks, not leaving home except for good reasons, and continuing to engage in pandemic hygiene (e.g., showering and changing clothes after any significant social interaction outside one’s community of quarantine).    

We should be mindful that in reopening our communities, more vulnerable groups may rightly be prioritized, sometimes exposing less vulnerable groups to heightened risk. For example, when the Florida governor announced last week that Jacksonville Beach would partially reopen, I was at first quite concerned. I have a home in Jax Beach and am familiar with the population who’d come out if restrictions were lifted. My wife expressed the concern to a local cop, who told her that the governor made the decision because incidents of domestic abuse were very high and the people needed a social release to relieve the pressure caused by the lockdown. This put the decision into perspective.

We need to be careful of creating a “snitch” culture. The already habitual unneighborliness found in many of our communities doesn’t need exacerbation by neighbors becoming public informants.

Finally, all reopening measures should be taken to be provisional by everyone. If early evidence shows that transmission rates of COVID-19 are dangerously increasing, we all need to be ready to reaccept lockdown measures. All need to take responsibility to prevent a second wave.

E. Christian Brugger is professor of moral theology at

Saint Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Joe Biden leaves after attending Mass at St. Ann Catholic Church on Nov. 21 in Wilmington, Delaware.

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