The question now is masks. Above all, that’s a math question.
Riley County Health Department Director Julie Gibbs has eliminated coronavirus restrictions, including the limits she had placed on crowds, starting Monday. Bars no longer have to close early, and you no longer have to be seated to order a drink. Oh, and you can dance. The infamous anti-dancing “Footloose” rule is gone.
All of that seems reasonable. New cases of the coronavirus are coming in far more slowly than they had been, and, far more importantly, all healthcare workers and nearly all elderly people have been vaccinated.
The restrictions never were supposed to be forever. They were intended to help slow the spread of the virus so that the healthcare system didn’t get overwhelmed, and so that we could protect the vulnerable. Whether they worked — or whether they even were necessary — probably will be debated forever, because there’s no way to know for sure. To know for sure, you would have to run an experiment where the exact same population went through the exact same experience without the restrictions.
But let’s use common sense. The virus spreads through the air, and so if you keep people apart from each other, you’re going to slow the spread. And because of the geometric nature of viral spread — that is, one person gives it to three, and each of those three give it to three, and each of those nine give it to three, and so on — if you can cut that by even a few, you can make a substantial difference.
The thing that makes the most difference, it appears, is widespread use of masks. That’s also common sense — using masks prevents an infected person from spreading it, and prevents another person from inhaling what an infected person might exhale.
For now, the county is leaving the mask requirement in place, but plans to review it soon. The Manhattan city government will consider next week whether to extend its own mask requirement beyond April 1.
The next serious question that needs to be addressed is: What’s the standard to use to decide when to remove the mask requirement?
To me, that standard ought to be the level of immunity. What is the appropriate level? I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know. But common sense says we ought to be somewhere near “herd immunity,” where the virus can’t really spread anymore. Right now, about 6,000 people have been vaccinated, and about 6,000 have had confirmed cases of the virus. The federal government estimates that there are 4.6 unconfirmed cases of the virus for every confirmed case; using that figure, you’d get to 27,600 cases. Add it up and you’re at about 45 percent of the population. “Herd immunity” requires 74 percent. Getting there will take about 10,000 more vaccinations.
This is a journalist doing math and science, so we’re in a danger zone. The point is, it doesn’t make much sense to eliminate a mask requirement just yet. But it won’t be too long before a reasonable standard will be met, and we’ll be out of the danger zone.