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If a short trip to Walmart last week provides clues about how seriously Kansans are taking COVID-19, expect this summer and fall to be dogged by disease.
I went to Walmart in search of elastic to make a few more face masks. I found no elastic, but I did find a busy store. Fewer than 10% of customers were wearing face masks, and even fewer followed store directions regarding social distancing.
This situation is not peculiar to Walmart. Across the country, employees at stores, restaurants and other businesses must tolerate people who refuse to follow rules or recommendations from the most qualified doctors in the country. Some customers even mock or yell at workers — adding insult to the risk of disease.
So COVID-19 likely will continue to spread — all because many Americans think following rules is an unconstitutional attack on their freedoms.
Many of these Americans frame their lack of respect for rules and for others as a battle to reopen and restore the economy. But it’s just the opposite. The continued spread of COVID-19 means a longer, more damning period of lost business and jobs.
Researchers know too little about this virus to say with certainty, but studies of other highly contagious diseases indicate the disease will spread for a long time unless people take steps to combat it.
At the same time, economic data so far show states that refused to place significant restrictions on businesses and people have not escaped either serious economic problems or disease.
It’s too soon to measure, much less understand, the extent and cause of all the damage. The disease is still spreading out of control in many states. And no one knows when people will feel comfortable going out to shop, eat or work — even with precautions.
But it’s clear that, uncurbed, the disease can be as damaging as any government restrictions.
Consider the meatpacking industry.
In Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, South Dakota and other states, plants had to close or cut production as disease cut down the workforce. That harmed not only the meatpacking industry, but ranchers, farmers, grocery stores and others in the supply chain.
And what we’ve experienced in that industry is only a fraction of the damage that would have occurred had restrictions not been in place to lessen the spread of the highly contagious virus.
Intertwined with the economic damage are human costs.
Viruses don’t stay in the workplace. They travel with infected employees when they visit grandma, go to church, and pick up the kids from day care.
At those places, the virus can infect others, who then visit restaurants, nursing homes and stores, such as Walmart, where the disease spreads to countless others.
Yes, death rates for COVID-19 are relatively low, but only in most, not all, places. And we don’t know why. Contagion rates, however, are very high. That’s why stores and governments issue social-distancing rules even after businesses reopen.
Those who argue we should all get the disease and take our chances are just refusing to admit what happens if we make that choice. It’s a needless loss of life on top of economic catastrophe.
My intention is not to scare people so that they never leave their homes. It’s to ask them to consider how their behavior and lack of respect for rules and for other people are not just personal choices.
Whether we like it or not, we’re in this together.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers across Kansas.