The coronavirus dilemma: Stay at home or carry on during the outbreak? Americans want to sacrifice for others, but can’t agree on what’s right

At a still-busy lunch spot in Boca Raton, Fla., two groups of older folks argued across their tables: on one side, a group of liberal Jewish anti-Trump transplants from New York; on the other, a bunch of Italian conservatives who admire the president. They disagreed on pretty much everything. But here they were, out and about, ignoring the coronavirus guidelines.

“And then we all started laughing and agreeing because we all said, ‘We’re here, we’re going out, and the media is hyping this to get at Trump,’ ” said John Cardillo, who was at the conservative table. “We might vote against each other in November, but on this, we’re of like minds: We’ve been through 9/11, we’ve been through Vietnam. This is nonsense.”

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As the president, governors, mayors and public health officials urge Americans to make a most unusual kind of sacrifice — stay home even if you’re not ill — the nation remains deeply divided over whether to forsake normal routines for what can sound like an abstract idea of the common good.

Trump on Thursday said he is seeing “a great spirit like people have not seen for a long time.”

“We said, ‘Stop, you can’t work, stay home.’ … And people are staying home,” he said.

In many places, that’s true: In some neighborhoods that normally empty out during the workday, driveways are full of cars and Internet service is showing the strain of so many people spending their days online.

Instances of individual and institutional sacrifice are now commonplace. A trainer has set up free anxiety-reducing workouts for his neighbors in the District. School bus drivers in Virginia are running their regular routes to drop off meals for hungry children. Power companies have suspended disconnections. A classical singer, Zach Finkelstein, has catalogued nearly 100 opera and choral groups that have decided to pay artists even though their performances had to be scrapped.

But defiance, denial and conspiracy thinking are also evident: Young people are packing the beaches, clinging to the usual spring break excesses. Some right-wing media outlets are still portraying decisions to shut down businesses and limit people’s movements as politically motivated anti-Trump tactics. And in much of the country, especially where there have been few confirmed cases of the virus, restaurants are still crowded and there’s plenty of traffic on the highways.

“There is an important strand in American culture that praises personal sacrifice as virtuous and noble,” said Lawrence Glickman, an American studies professor at Cornell University. “But the American economy is also highly dependent on consumption — restaurants, local businesses, travel — and in the short term, the only way to rejuice our economy is to spend our way out of it.”

That conflict — keep spending to get the engines of the economy moving again or stay home to curb the spread of the disease — is made even more complex by doubts about whether Americans still have the can-do spirit that has made the country a model of self-sacrifice in past crises.

The defining ordeals that many Americans grew up hearing about — for example, how the country embraced food rationing during World War II — and that many lived through, such as the groundswell of patriotic fervor after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all involved the country coming together in united public action and huge popular causes: defeat fascism, avenge the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The government has led the way in past crises.

“Do with less so they’ll have enough!” federal posters urged in World War II. “Rationing gives you your fair share.”

“Get down to Disney World in Florida,” President George W. Bush said after the 9/11 attacks in an effort to boost the economy. “Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

This time, the messages are mixed.

Trump has shifted from diminishing the virus’s threat upon its arrival in the United States to urging people to stay home. The public conversation about the spread of the virus remains split, however, with some governors essentially locking down entire states, including the country’s two most-populous cities, and other elected officials holding back from any drastic actions because they still consider the threat of contagion less dire than the threat to the nation’s commerce.

“I’ll do what I want,” tweeted Katie Williams, a school board candidate in Nevada, justifying her decision to eat at a restaurant. “Because this is America.”

This epidemic, in contrast to past crises, calls for private individual sacrifice. When you stay at home, you become invisible. The benefits of sacrifice this time are theoretical, even mathematical. The idea of “flattening the curve” of the virus’s spread requires understanding that staying away from other people could save the lives of Americans whom you don’t know, far from where you live.

“What’s selfish and what’s selfless in this case?” asked David Markovich, 31, a digital marketing entrepreneur in New York City who has launched a site to connect homebound workers with each other and with new gigs. “If somebody is suicidal and someone in our online community helps them, is that being selfless to offer help or is it being selfish because I need to do something like that to get up in the morning? How do you help people when you’re alone? I just went on a bike ride, and it’s very empty out there, very lonely. More than a thousand people live in my building, and I haven’t seen anyone in days.”

The confusion about what’s right is palpable.

Kathleen Kenny and Nathan Stubbs, married for 11 years, are always busy, working six or seven days a week. Kenny, 41, is a self-employed theater and dance teacher, bringing the arts to special needs students in their town, West Palm Beach, Fla. Stubbs gives private acting lessons and works as a restaurant server. All of their jobs depend on human interaction.

The virus closed the schools. Then Kenny and Stubbs voluntarily ended their in-person lessons to protect their students from the virus. This week, Stubbs, 40, left the TGI Fridays where he had worked part time for 11 years. That was a struggle of conscience — he needed the money, but he had to sacrifice his livelihood for the people around him, including his wife, who cares for her elderly mother.

On Sunday, he waited on “a girl’s 16th birthday party and the whole family wanted to be there.”

“I made good money … $100 or so, but I kind of put myself at risk,” Stubbs said.

There’s something that matters more; it’s not just about us. If I get the flu, I’ll be okay. But we’ve got other people to think about.

Nathan Stubbs

At another table, some people were coughing. “And I thought about Kat and her mom,” he said. “My parents are elderly, my dad’s in poor health. So I made the decision.”

He told his boss he wouldn’t be coming back during the outbreak.

Kenny said she has “friends who are still working with the public.”

“I know they’re good people, and I understand the reasoning behind that,” she said. “But I said, ‘Okay, I can’t do that.’ There’s something that matters more; it’s not just about us. If I get the flu, I’ll be okay. But we’ve got other people to think about.”

Each person’s decision about how to behave now exists in its own universe; in every home, “we’re all in this together” can clash against “I have to do what’s right for the people I care about.”

On Monday, when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) ordered nonessential businesses to shut down, Jondhi Harrell decided not to abandon the people he serves as executive director of the Center for Returning Citizens, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that helps recently released prisoners make their way back.

“If we close our doors, then we are derelict in our duties,” said Harrell, who has served two jail terms. “We just finished walking a guy who just came home through the process of applying for food stamps and medical benefits. If we weren’t here, who would do it?”

He’s working with colleagues to create a food bank so people won’t be driven by hunger to poor decisions. On Thursday morning, a man came in asking if Harrell had heard about any available under-the-table jobs. Harrell had to say there’s nothing.

The man said he had just had to tell a young guy not to do “anything crazy” with the guns he was carrying in his coat.

“There’s a new level of fear,” Harrell said. “People don’t know what’s coming.”

So he concluded that he had made the right call. “What else should we be doing but serving our community while we do the best to keep ourselves safe?” he said. “The world cannot stop because the coronavirus is here.”

But late Thursday, the governor ordered nearly all businesses to shut down. Harrell reluctantly put away the hand sanitizer that his staff had made from an online recipe, forwarded all calls to his cell and closed the office.

Decisions not to stay home can seem like the right kind of sacrifice, even where the virus has hit hardest.

Mark Lloyd, 65, has a comfortable job as a network engineer at F5 Networks, which evacuated its downtown Seattle headquarters on March 2, when an employee tested positive for the virus. A tuba player in a community orchestra, Lloyd had been looking forward to dedicating more time to music. But the virus can’t keep him inside; instead, the encampments of homeless people that he can see from his window have called him — even though his wife, Jeri, has an autoimmune disorder that makes her more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

As she self-quarantines at home, Lloyd visits the encampments two or three times a week, talking to people, bringing in portable toilets and delivering trash bags. While the nation copes with a state of emergency over the coronavirus, Seattle, with more than 5,000 unsheltered people, has been in a civil state of emergency over homelessness since 2015.

The virus has made Lloyd’s visits more risky — densely packed shelters seem like perfect settings for easy infection. And helping is harder: Lloyd and other volunteers who formerly served 100 hot meals on Sundays under a highway interchange had to offer cold lunches instead on the past two Sundays. But after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) prohibited gatherings larger than 10 people, the meal service ended.

Lloyd still shows up, focused on finding and bringing hand sanitizer to the encampments, potentially exposing himself to people who contracted the virus.

The thought that his charitable work may endanger his wife is “still hitting me,” he said. His wife “has expressed that anything that happens to me would affect her,” but he can’t bring himself to hit pause.

“It’s not in my nature,” he said. “I’m a damn-the-torpedoes kind of guy.”

The order Thursday evening by California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) requiring everyone in the state to shelter in place came after it was clear that many people had little interest in altering their daily routines, even if they did understand how the virus moves from person to person.

The Beach House surf shop at the foot of State Street in Santa Barbara sits about a quarter-mile from the Pacific Ocean. On Wednesday, before the order to close, the shop’s owner, Roger Nance, met in his loft office with his floor manager, Keegan Kujawa, to search for their path forward.

It was more than a business decision. The shop has supplied much of this town’s boards and wet suits, wax and rash guards for more than three decades.

“I could see people being mad at us if we do [open] because we’re not exactly furthering the cause of containing this thing,” Kujawa said. “What do we say the first time someone walks in and says, ‘I can’t believe you are keeping this open and taking this risk?’ ”

On the other side of the equation are the livelihoods of the dozen people who work at the Beach House. Nance, 69, gave his workers the choice to stay home or come in. “It’s agonizing,” he said. “My employees are paycheck to paycheck. It’s not like I’m benefiting staying open. I’m trying to do it for the employees and for the customers. Surfers, despite everything else, are going to surf.”

Santa Barbara County, where northern California meets the southern part of the state, had been only lightly touched by the virus, with two reported cases by Wednesday. But on Thursday, that jumped to nine. Everybody had to close shop.

The forced shutdowns might arrest the spread of the virus, but they also will bring the economy to a screeching halt — a sacrifice many say is not worth the cost.

“I lost friends in 9/11, and people came together,” said Cardillo, a former New York City police officer who lives in Fort Lauderdale and hosts a conservative talk show on Newsmax. “This looks more political: We still have a relatively low number of cases, and they say we can’t go outside and buy toilet paper? Right now, it’s a bad virus, so, social distancing, great. But is this worth closing mom-and-pop places, bankrupting small businesses? Absolutely not.”

Yet some people already see the response to the virus as a model, an example of how productive change can happen.

“There are a lot of grumpy climate change specialists expressing frustration right now that we’ve been trying to motivate massive restructuring of society since forever, and then this virus comes and massively restructures society almost immediately,” said Seth Baum, executive director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute and a researcher on the risks involved in pandemics and other very bad events.

Baum suggests that recent changes in American life have made spending more time at home easier. The advent of the Internet has made it easier, or at least more common, to spend time alone.

Americans did turn inward after 9/11 and the advent of social media. Declines in retail sales and church attendance attest to that. But the yearning for community persisted.

There’s a new level of fear. People don’t know what’s coming.

Jondhi Harrell

“Especially for young people, the popularity of the climate change cause has made them more attuned to a message that we’re all in this together,” said Glickman, the Cornell professor.

In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said that the time since 9/11 has revealed “the good and optimistic and big-hearted generosity of the American people who, every day, live the idea that we are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper.” But the very next year, Americans voted for a president who emphasized tightening our borders, building walls and the primacy of self-interest.

The coming months could reveal which vision of the country is right. For Finkelstein, the tenor who has lost eight performance bookings so far this spring, the crisis is a test of who we really are.

“We’re the most generous, philanthropic society in the world,” he said. “But we don’t have a real safety net. Some people give beyond themselves. Some just live their lives. We’re all just trying to get it together.”

Sellers reported from Philadelphia, and Wilson reported from Santa Barbara, Calif. Lori Rozsa in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Greg Scruggs in Seattle contributed to this report.

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