The screws tighten

Municipal parks have been closed for a long time. Yesterday the Governor announced that state greenspace is out of bounds, too. This is meant to limit congregations of people who might be passing around the pathogen, but it also prohibits us from taking refuge in wide open spaces. Liberty State Park doesn’t tend to be very crowded. For as long as I can remember, it’s been an optimal spot for social distancing. Now it’s off limits.

We still need to get exercise. Last year at this time, we took long walks and tried our luck on the machines at local gyms. We did this no matter how Hilary was feeling: we knew we had to push through the anxiety and the exhaustion to give her body an opportunity to heal itself. But all the gyms have been closed, and the roads aren’t too welcoming. Out on the street, our primary concern is for our neighbors: we want to give them as much space as possible, and that means stopping in our tracks or ducking into a driveway. I suggested a drive to South Mountain and a walk through the woods. We may still do that. Or we might take a bicycle ride — one without a destination.

Discouragement of physical activity comes with its own risks. It isn’t good for people to be sedentary. I’ve tried to do my push-ups and squats right here in our bedroom — there’s even a little wall chart for us to keep track of our progress — but there’s really no substitute for the kind of healthy activities that parks permit. I’ve always argued, hard, against helmet rules for the simple reason that the helmet is a constant reminder of the cyclist’s vulnerability, and thus it makes her disinclined to get on a bicycle. I believe that the safety measure has a suppressive effect on the thing it’s supposed to protect. We’re seeing the same thing happen with antiviral face masks. The mask is message from the wearer to herself that she’s existing in a hostile environment, and her best option for self-preservation is to stay at home where she won’t have to wear one. Every time she passes a masked neighbor, that message is reinforced. Eventually, there’s nobody left on the street.

In early April of the plague year, that may be exactly what we need to do. Allow me, though, to worry about the physical and psychological effects of how we’re living — and whether they’ll be easily reversed when the warnings are lifted (when?). Everybody who lived through 9/11 and its aftermath knows that restrictions, once put in place, don’t budge easily. We get accustomed to altered states with alarming speed. I’m sure you’ve seen efforts to turn the mask into a fashion accessory — masks with messages, or masks made by famous stylists, or masks stitched from cleverly re-purposed materials. It’s all well-meaning, and I appreciate the way in which the homemade mask industry signals that those involved in it are taking the coronavirus seriously and doing what little they can. But it’s still a wide open question whether homemade masks are even capable of blocking this pathogen.

Regardless, by the Governor’s decree, masks are now mandatory in grocery stores. Paranoid though I am, I recognize that this is not an authoritarian plot. I know we don’t have the luxury to play around. By and large, my neighbors realize this, and they’re masking themselves voluntarily. But we’ve learned over the years that authoritarianism never comes from the authorities alone. It is the product of a complex interaction between citizens who prioritize safety and the police, who have to make a judgement about the popular acceptance of every restriction they put in place. Turn the screws too tight, and, inevitably, laws backfire, no matter what the penalties for breaking them are. We don’t know all the ways in which this public health crisis is disturbing the equilibrium between authorities and ordinary citizens, but it’s pretty clear that it’s creating conditions that authoritarians can exploit, and softening our defenses against them.

For now, I recognize that Trenton has a brutal job to do, and limited latitude for doing it. The Governor needs to make life as easy for medical personnel as he can. In response to a stir-crazy public that demands answers, we’re getting projections about peaks: peaks in cases, peaks in deaths, plateaus, surges, waves, various metaphors for inundation and terrifying altitudes. It’s all guesswork. Testing has been sporadic, and official counts are blunt instruments. There’s no way anybody can predict the exact course of the crisis, or the challenges that the next weeks will bring. Clearing the streets and parks is the strategy for today; tomorrow, people may lose their patience and demand a more liberal interpretation of public health and essential services. One of the new restrictions, I notice, bans construction work on residential buildings. Jersey City without residential construction: that’s like Philly without cheese steaks, or Tatooine without moisture farms. All over the neighborhood, I can hear the racket of desperate contractors and their teams. They’re getting in their last hammer blows, their last saw-scrapes, their last blasts of steam from private generators before the padlock clicks shut.