One of the most difficult things that an actor learns to do is to say a line, after having already having said it dozens if not hundreds of times, and make it seem like the first time they ever said it. This involves playing a trick on the brain, convincing yourself that you are doing something that you aren’t really doing. The initial challenge is to understand and deliver the words when you first experience them; the harder challenge is to sustain that moment of realization. America’s coronavirus response is now in that second phase.
An excellent example of how performative this has all become is CNN Anchor Chris Cuomo and presidential candidate Joe Biden broadcasting from their basements. In both cases, appearing in the basement began as a fast solution to the problem of isolation, in Cuomo’s case because he caught the Chinese virus, and in Biden’s out of fear that he might. But over the past month, both CNN and the Biden campaign have had time to create alternatives. So why are they still in the basement?
The basements have become sets, everything visible in them props, and sets and props absolutely help to tell the story. The message being sent is that things are not normal; we know they aren’t normal because look, Cuomo and Biden are still stuck in their basements. Just as so many Americans are stuck in their houses, unable to reclaim their normal lives. Even if they really don’t have to be.
When the lockdown started we knew why we were doing it. The major fear was that hospitals would be overrun by a deluge of coronavirus cases. That didn’t happen, not even close. But instead of calling the emergency measures a success and moving quickly and aggressively to reopen the economy and restart basic American life, we moved the goalposts to an unreachable endzone of impossible testing levels or a vaccine over a year away. Now we are settling in to perform this new reality for God knows how long.
There seem to be some who think it is too dangerous to return to our normal lives until we invent a time machine so we can go back and fix any mistakes we make in reopening. That’s not how life works, there will be mistakes, and many will be costly. But we have to make judgments based on how things actually are, not based on a pantomime we have now learned to play by rote.
Across the United States this week millions of Americans will see stay at home orders and other pandemic restrictions relaxed. They will face a choice, whether to return to restaurants, beaches, and movie theaters, or to continue their isolation, still waiting for some all clear to be signaled. It is very important that people make this decision by weighing facts; not by playing the part they think society is telling them to play.
Not all of us have to be locked in the basement. In fact, the vast majority of us do not need to be locked in the basement. Just because it creates the optics that Chris Cuomo and Joe Biden want at the moment doesn’t mean that the period of strict isolation is not ending. It is ending and we should be grateful for that. Getting back out in the world in responsible and safe ways, supporting your friends and neighbors’ small businesses and jobs doesn’t make you a bad person. Being part of the reopening of America is something we all must do eventually.
One of the hardest things to do in life is to rule our ideas and not be ruled by them. This is especially true when because of politics, tribalism, or fear, we become more invested in having been right than in doing the right thing. For well over a month now Americans have performed admirably, played the role of obedient citizens, now it’s time for a new scene.
As the option to engage again in society emerges this week, let Americans weigh it carefully, but not be locked into the mindset of the past two months. Now is the time to learn and to deliver a new line, one that will take us out of this miasma and into the future. Stop performing the coronavirus and start living the reality of the world beyond it that we have begun to enter.