Written by Michael Habberfield PhD. and Kevin Heffernan

We’d like to begin with an apology. On Friday night, we made light of our current situation by taking a photo of a packed local bar and posting it on our Instagram stories. “Keep Buffalonians out of the bars, you say?” we joked. We were caught up in a familiar feeling in Buffalo, when locals gather at pubs and restaurants during blizzards and other major moments, to be together, and pat ourselves on the back for being tough and resilient. It’s electric and exciting. We’re all experiencing something together and there’s a feeling of solidarity, especially in the places we hang out in the most – bars and restaurants. That feeling is misplaced in this unprecedented situation.

We were wrong to jokingly suggest cramming into every establishment is just fine, and just what we do. This is not a blizzard, or other weather event. We have collectively been acting as if Western New York was not on the front lines, even as confirmed cases of COVID-19 were popping up in Rochester. Now that testing has finally begun, there are three confirmed cases in Erie County, which indicates there are many more we don’t yet know of. Our county and region does not have a very large population, that means hospitals don’t have many ICU beds, nor many ventilators critical to treating the illness and more. If we keep moving forward thinking it’s our god-given right to go out in public and enjoy ourselves no matter how we’re feeling, we’re going to be in very big trouble.

It’s time to hunker down and think of other people before you think of yourself. City of Good Neighbors should mean more than shoveling a sidewalk or two. We’ve seen the conflicting advice to stay in vs the pressure to support local businesses simultaneously. It’s hard to determine what to do, especially when small businesses, bars ands restaurants keep Rise in business with their advertisements, but bars have now been warned to stop going beyond 50% capacity or they will be shut down and lose their license with little chance of getting it back when this is over. Call and ask if they have takeout options. Go support them at non peak times. But if you see a place that’s pretty crowded, it is unfortunately time to move on and refrain from contributing to this issue. No one can hide from this and the longer we’re irresponsible, the greater chance you, your parents, your grandparents contract this and put our region’s health systems on the edge of collapse. Please, stop wearing shirts that say “Coronavirus Can Kiss My Ass,” stop packing our bars to the brim, stop being idiots. It’s here. It’s time to be responsible.

Photo from Clarissa Gonzalez. Find your favorite place’s takeout option. If they go over 50% capacity, they risk being shut down.

Mike Habberfield, who has written for Rise in the past, wanted to submit an entry with some citations that urges us not to look to celebrity tweets for reassurance and justification for irresponsible behavior, and to put our faith in real scientists, and listen to the instructions the government is giving:

“Don’t panic, it’s not that bad, here are the facts…”

There have recently been a lot of posts, too many, online about COVID-19  that start like that. Obviously, panic and hoarding supplies is not the appropriate reaction, especially when doing so impinges on the safety of the more vulnerable (the elderly, immune-compromised). And no doubt there are problems with news media seeking ratings boosts providing unchecked reports, sensationalism, and fear mongering. People need to realize that there are other sources of subpar information, too. 

Celebrities like Kristen Bell have re-posted “Data Packs” that millions of people see and point to as reassurance that “it’s not that bad”, with the problem being that the data are already outdated and are misleading. That data pack downplayed the very serious risks to millions of people above middle-age (not just very elderly) and to other people who may be susceptible because of other very common conditions. It also made misleading comparisons to other diseases, some of which have taken monumental worldwide efforts to get under control.

A Toronto-based infectious disease specialist rambled on Facebook about how the world is overreacting and he’s concerned about what this is teaching our children. It went viral and once again, by the time many people are posting it, it’s over a week old and that very same doctor is tweeting that he no longer thinks that travel and gatherings shouldn’t be cancelled. 

Moreover, the author is a clinical doctor, not an epidemiologist or network scientist. Those actual experts are providing a different road map. And their models range from 1 million Americans infected and 35K dead over the course of the year, to 100+ million infected and 300K deaths, far exceeding the typical flu. Instituting policies to flatten the epidemiological curve can help avoid that. Keep in mind that China has finally gotten a handle on its cases only after instituting the largest lockdown in human history—700 million people under house arrest since January! That’s unimaginable here. And now there are more cases being reported every day in Europe than were reported in China at the height of its epidemic.

Photo from Fusion Medical Animation

Not only do we need to filter through the news media, we need to filter through the social media, the anecdotal, and the sound bite or data byte. Celebrities should not be your guide in this crisis. Sure, “just wash your hands”, but the big decisions about how society should structurally respond need to be guided by the latest and best information from the true experts, enforced by local and state governments, and even the federal government. 

[This problem of expertise is similar to those inflicting the public understanding and reaction to other large-scale problems such as climate change, or the high-water levels in the Great Lakes and eroding shorelines. Unfortunately, this seems to be a common theme in what some are calling our current “post-truth world”.]

As for Buffalo, we’re tough but we probably shouldn’t be treating this like a snowstorm and stubbornly going out anyway, or walking to the local bar shining with local pride and grit. Especially now that there are confirmed cases in Erie County. 

There is a misconception among some people that the kind and brave thing to do is to shake people’s hands and behave as if things were normal. They want to demonstrate that they’re not afraid of the virus by interacting with others. In reality, the kind and altruistic thing to do is precisely the opposite of this.”
Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University, where he directs the Human Nature Lab and is the Co-Director of the Yale Institute for Network Science.