Defiers and Deniers in the Age of COVID-19

For weeks now, we’ve been bombarded with messages about the importance of social distancing in the age of COVID-19. For the most part, we’re all following this advice from healthcare experts, and seeing some promising results. But some choose to defy guidance. 

Call it denial, ignorance, or just disregard for the truth, some people are not practicing social distancing and other healthy practices like sneezing into their sleeves or covering their coughs. Or coming to blows over a twelve-pack of toilet paper. And just like your grade schoolmate who misbehaved in class, their behavior is affecting us all.  

Dr. Gordon Asmundson, a psychology professor at the University of Regina studies psychological factors that impact the spread and our response to the virus. According to this CNN story, he classifies us into three groups — the over-responders, those in the middle, and the under-responders, who are disobeying guidelines and consider themselves invulnerable to COVID-19.

Asmundson says under-responders are not following social distancing advice because they don’t believe they’ll get sick. And that’s where the problem lies. Their beliefs are affecting everyone else, and they may be at the root of further spread for the coming months.  

Digging deeper into the under-responders, Vaile Wright of the American Psychological Association says the anti-social distancing set continues to ignore advice because they feel powerless, and acting out their defiance minimizes the virus.  

 

Coronavirus Parties, Spring Break, and Other Nonsense

Some deniers are engaging in practices that are outrageous at best, putting themselves and others at risk. Earlier this year, a group of University of Texas students ignored social-distancing guidelines and chartered a private jet to Cabo for spring break. Upon coming back home, 49 of the students, who may have been under the impression they couldn’t get sick, tested positive for the coronavirus.  

The Texas spring break revelers are far from alone, as Florida and Wisconsin students tested positive after trips to Florida, Alabama, Tennessee and other destinations.  

But college-age students are not the only ones to ignore COVID-19 health recommendations, as reports of coronavirus parties sponsored by a Syracuse bar and house parties in New York City, the U.S. epicenter of the disease, have been confirmed. Meanwhile, police cracked down on a house party in New Jersey recently where partygoers were posting videos of themselves on social media despite the governor’s emergency order prohibiting large gatherings. 

 

City Officials Take Action

The good news here is that most of us are following new guidelines to stay at home, canceling celebrations and long-planned vacations. Arts venues have closed, concerts and festivals postponed to next year, and restaurants moving to delivery and curbside-only food service.  

But as some people are ignoring those orders to avoid large gatherings and social distancing, some officials have been forced to take action. Here in North Texas, the City of Plano is temporarily deploying City workers to act as ‘friendly monitors’ in the city’s major parks to ensure its citizens are practicing social and physical distancing of at least six feet.  

In Fort Worth, parks department workers removed the rims from basketball goals and nets from volleyball courts at city parks after observing social distancing warnings were being ignored. As such, all basketball and volleyball courts in city parks are now closed.  

And more recently, the City of Dallas closed outdoor basketball courts, tennis courts and playgrounds in city parks to prevent group gatherings. Although trails and open park areas remain open, the City’s Parks & Recreation department has placed electronic signs in certain areas to remind people to keep their social distance. Along the popular Katy Trail, Dallas City Marshals are patrolling to ensure people are exercising social distance.  

 

So, What Can You Do?

To keep yourself and your family and loved ones safe during the pandemic, the best advice is to follow social distancing guidelines, staying home if your place of business is deemed non-essential to help ‘flatten the curve’. This practice will undoubtedly save lives and keep our healthcare workers and facilities from being overwhelmed. Likewise, if you see a neighbor who is still leaving the house every morning like clockwork in their work uniform, don’t assume they’re not practicing social distancing or trying their best to keep themselves, their families and our community safe; kindness, understanding and leading by example are the best tactics right now.  

But if you have a friend or family member who’s a denier, there are strategies for talking to them, according to Syon Bhanot, a behavioral economist and assistant professor at Swarthmore College. In this Philadelphia Inquirer piece about talking to friends who still aren’t social distancing, Bhanot contends that humans aren’t as responsive to threats they can’t see like a virus.

Second, he says, in the United States, where our freedom is imperative to our way of life, taking some aspect of it away is a challenge for many.  For others, ignoring guidelines may be a fight or flight reaction to anxiety. In this case, disregarding guidelines is a form of flight, denying it or even joking about it, according to Jeff Wolper of the Wolper Institute for Group Learning.  

But what about if you’re out in public to do some essential business and someone is defying safety protocols? Don’t be afraid to speak up. 

“We have to be very forward with making sure that we communicate with the individual,” Elaine Swann, a lifestyle and etiquette expert. “Turn to that individual and, very frankly, very honestly, with respect and consideration, say, ‘Will you please take a few steps back? I would like to make sure I’m protecting both you and me.’”

This may offend the other person, she says, but they are putting your health at risk, and you have every right to speak up for yourself. “Don’t worry about how the other person might feel. Say what you need to say, do it with grace and dignity, and allow them to deal with their feelings and emotions about what just transpired,” she adds.

You can also make changes if you feel an environment is not safe for you. You can control your own behavior more than you can control others’ behavior. If you feel that your safety is not being taken seriously, bring it up to management if available and remove yourself from the situation. 

While shaming someone may be tempting, remember that empathy is the best way to change behaviors of friends, family and neighbors who aren’t playing by the rules.

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