“You would never know there was a pandemic going on.”
Following best practices got us to the point where reopening activities may soon be possible. Then, our behavior will continue to be a deciding factor in whether it is successful or harmful. But applying coronavirus best practices to old settings is not going to be easy. The Florida beaches have been reopened and a reporter noticed she was the only one with a face mask. She was the only one doing social distancing. For everyone else, it seemed to be a normal day at the beach. One person interviewed even said it was a welcome break from having to think about the pandemic. That will not be sustainable.
This is exactly what public health officials feared would happen and will continue to happen. The beachgoers had not prepared themselves mentally to carry safe practices into their beach experience. There was no group pressure to conform. So, they behaved at the beach the way they always have.
One of the things working against successful re-opening of activities is state specific learning. What we learn in one setting does not automatically generalize into other settings. We have to be deliberate about it or it won’t happen. What is more likely to happen is that we will be like the beach goers and act like we did before.
A helpful process for this is mental rehearsal. Before going to the beach or back to work, you imagine as clearly as you can doing so while following social distancing, wearing a facemask, keeping control of what you touch, and doing good hand cleansing. Repeat this several times before you go. The repetition will give you really good momentum and help you see when you or others start to deviate. We may need to give other people reminders, something many of us are uncomfortable doing. But that is part of being in this together.
Another big thing that shapes our behavior is how those around us are acting. When they don’t follow best practices, we are less likely to. We don’t want to be the only one. But when we keep the behavioral standards in mind before entering the situation, we are less likely to drift to how others are acting.
Already, in the essential service of grocery stores, more and more managers are feeling the need to protect their employees from careless customers. They are considering eliminating in-store shopping and only doing online shopping with home delivery or curbside pickup. This means other customers are witnessing careless behavior that are public health hazards and letting it go.
Careless behavior in a store is not just between the customer and the employee, it is between the careless customer and everyone else present. So, to be successful with having open stores and businesses, we need to exercise more mutual accountability.
Since beginning these blogs on the psychology of dealing with the pandemic, I have stressed mutual vulnerability and mutual responsibility. Those are what motivated following best practices. Now we must add mutual accountability. It is through mutual accountability that new behaviors become the norm. This is really hard. Holding others accountable and being held accountable by peers is very uncomfortable. It works best if we assume good intentions on everyone’s part. What we are doing then is bringing a person’s attention to what they had lost track of. Then our response will be to thank the other person, not get upset or defensive.
Even if the person does not care about best practices, this approach of assuming the best has the greatest chance of bringing out the best in them. If it brings out their worst, then they need to experience that they won’t just get away with putting others’ health at risk.
It can be difficult to act graciously when you feel unsafe or angry. If we remind others as we would like to be reminded, it won’t be woke scolding. It is really a way of collectively taking ownership of safe behaviors instead of blaming the government for imposing it on us. So, our skill set for reopening needs to include the willingness to hold others accountable and be open to them doing the same when they notice our lapse.
It is time also to remind ourselves to watch for thoughts that justify making exceptions for ourselves and others. We covered this in an earlier blog, Dangerous Thoughts.