In the debate over reopening—how soon, how fast—the question is posed as a choice between the economy and public health. Both are certainly important, but there is a third missing element. We are more than bodies to be kept healthy and workers/consumers to keep the wheels of commerce going. We are also persons in community, engaging the mind and spirit with other humans. Fortunately for some of us, we have had the gift of technology to keep in touch, but it didn’t include everyone, and it was in imperfect substitute for real human contact. We need to acknowledge the desire to attend live worship services, the concern among students of all ages that online learning is at best an imperfect substitute for live real time classrooms and labs, the missed scout troops and team sports and outings to movie theaters and ball games and restaurants, the absence of a real live presidential election campaign, virtual conventions and festivals, and the inability to have neighborhood and extended family gatherings and vacations at the beach in the summer.
Yes, the workplace often is a community, but we all belong to multiple and overlapping communities. Schools and colleges, churches, youth activities, bridge clubs, extended family, volunteer organizations—these are our communities. So are our cities and towns, who provide a lot of these opportunities to gather and are struggling with demands for first responder services and declining revenue from sales taxes and tourism. These kinds of direct face-to-face contact with no computer screen intervening fill an important human need for community. We are asked to wear masks and wash our hands frequently not just to protect ourselves but to protect the larger community, but in order to persuade people to do those things, they need to feel like a part of the community. If we don’t get to experience other people directly, our sense of being in community and being responsible to and for the well- being of that community. Health and economic activity are only two components of that well being.
Maybe with months of electronic church services, on-line classes, on-line shopping, Zoom meetings for work and social interaction, and virtual experiences of entertainment, we won’t want to return to those communities when the pandemic ends. Or the communities will no longer exist. We are already seeing malls and retailers closing, smaller colleges wondering if they will survive a prolonged reliance on distance learning, children and youth getting used to being loners instead of part of a class, team, or other group. Even travel, where we broaden our horizons with new experiences of people and places, is experiencing a dramatic decline in a large part of the industry including air travel, cruises, hotel stays, and other kinds of business travel and tourism, an economic challenge with a strong social dimension. If we don’t find a way to resume in-person experiences of people and places, communities and community institutions, these programs, services and communities can wither and die, and revival will be hard.
So I invite you to reflect on the communities to which you belong and how some of them might be able to occasionally assemble in person, with masks and social distancing, in small numbers. Add your voice to the reopening debate. Reopen with lots of masks, hand washing, and deep cleaning. The pandemic has already killed more than 90,000 Americans. Let’s ensure that it does not kill some of our cherished social institutions from NASCAR to college to community worship as well.