A modest proposal for retail and service businesses



As we learn more about who is at risk from COVID-19, the people I talk to (and who message me) are falling into two camps: 1) those who just want to get back to normal and are willing to risk catching the virus; and 2) those who want to make sure they don’t get the virus.

The first camp doesn’t want to wear masks, and the second camp wants everyone to wear masks. The second camp has more weight to their argument because the virus is dangerous to many of them, so how do we protect them while the first camp gets the economy going again?

Early on in the pandemic, Publix began offering specific hours, early in the day, for older shoppers; my idea is to extend this to those who want everyone to wear masks. For example, retail stores could require masks (for employees and customers) from opening until mid-afternoon (going on the assumption that stores are cleanest and that air exchangers make the air cleanest first thing in the morning), then open for customers without masks (and employees without masks, at their discretion) from mid-afternoon to closing. I would even go so far as to not limit occupancy and not stand 6 feet apart, but that’s probably too far for most people… yet.

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It’s important for everyone to realize that, as we open up, we will see higher numbers of positive cases. As long as the hospital availability stays at an acceptable level, this is good for the community. Every person who recovers from the virus is someone who can’t be infected in the near future (although we don’t know how long immunity lasts, it is likely that at least partial immunity lasts for some time, and it’s probable that people are protected at least until the promised vaccine appears), and people who have recovered don’t have to worry about the possibility of transmitting the virus before they are asymptomatic.

The most important part of this idea is that it will allow us to see the actual proportions of people who are willing to go back to normal. Polls have been saying that 70%-80% of people want to stay safe and locked down, but I don’t believe that represents the people I’ve been talking to. If businesses are swamped in the early hours but empty in the later hours, they can increase the mask-wearing hours. Or if, as I suspect, the non-mask-wearing hours are more popular, they can move in the other direction. 

The most important element of this will be protecting retailers from lawsuits brought by people who claim to have been infected during a non-mask-wearing time. This can be accomplished by state action (I’m not a lawyer, so I won’t bother to propose anything specific here) and by posting prominent signs about which policy is in effect when people walk in the door.

I don’t want to live in a society where we all wear masks, and nobody who is proposing mask-wearing has told me at what point we stop wearing masks. Even a vaccine won’t provide 100% protection, although maybe it will reduce the perceived risk enough that people are willing to loosen restrictions. Many people are now arguing that there is no acceptable level of risk, and the people who are vocally in favor of mask-wearing could prevail for years to come. The only way to balance the two views is to essentially create two societies: one that comes as close as possible to where we were 2 months ago (when the virus was already everywhere but the panic hadn’t started), and one that keeps people completely safe from the virus. This modest proposal seems like a reasonable way to start figuring that out.