September 16th, 2020


Looking past the virus

Item: I read that Hollywood is holding back the release of its summer blockbusters until Christmas. The one or two "big" movies that have been released so far have struggled and lost money. Apparently, the public isn't ready to go back to the theaters in any numbers.

Item: I saw a picture of an airline cabin during flight. Everyone was masked. Every seat was full. Obviously, some part of the public is still ready to take commercial flights. And all of them can't be traveling for essential business. There is still some elective/vacation travel going on.

At first glance, the balance between these two reports don't seem to add up. The risks of sitting in a large room with considerable spacing between customers for two hours seem much less than sitting in a small cabin cheek-by-jowl with strangers. The air circulation in the aircraft would seem to be more likely to be toxic than the air circulation in a suburban theater. And these are not activities chosen by different groups. Most of the flying public probably also see movies in theaters, at least under normal circumstances. That means that some people are making the personal choice to fly, but not go to the movies, even though the risk of exposure to covid-19 is probably much greater in an aircraft cabin than a movie theater. What gives?

What is going on is a complex, highly personal calculation comparing risks and rewards. Let us say that the risk to one's health from going to the movies is x, while the risk to one's health from air travel is 5x. People who choose to fly but not go to the movies would seem to be making a foolish choice. But let us then say that the reward -- the pleasure, mostly -- of going to the movies is y, while the reward of the big trip involving air travel is 50y. Whatever the balance of x and y, air travel comes out as a good decision: the ratio of risk to reward for the movies is x:y, while the ration of risk to reward of air travel is 5x:50y. The risk is five times greater, but the reward is 50 times greater. Under the circumstances, air travel looks like a pretty good bet.

Not all people would calculate the ratio quite that way, or make the same choices. How much money you have available, how much time you have available, what personal precautions you think you can take in a given situation, your current state of health/wellness all come into play. But my point is not to say that this person is wise, while that person is foolish. I'm not advocating for any particular approach to handling the challenge of covid-19. I'm just saying that, ultimately, each person will make prudential judgments for highly personal reasons on what is safe to do or worth the risk, and what is not. The free market is not only concerned with money. All questions of price (whether in risk to health or to pocketbook) are determined by the individual actor in unplanned concert with millions of other individual actors. Some will find a given price worth paying, others will not.

Most of the churches I personally know of are meeting in person again, though with various protective measures in place (and livestreaming or recording continuing). Still, not everyone has returned to meeting in person. They're not ready yet, even if others are. Even after we all abandon masks and scattered seating, some people may not return to their regular activities for some time. Meanwhile, individuals who feel that their churches -- and their other regular economic or social venues -- are going too fast or too slow in response to the threat of covid-19 may choose to change their custom to embrace other venues that suit their risk:reward calculation better.

In the end, it'll be over when people decide it's over. Deciding it's over doesn't make the virus go away, but then the virus is never really going away. Like Swine Flu, it will be around for generations. But there will come a time when we will, as a society, decide that we can live with it, like we live with influenza and other endemic diseases. Government will not make that decision. We will make it, all together, by the sum of our individual choices.