Social Distancing? Not Good Enough. Give Me Anti-Social Distancing, ASAP | Opinion

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has drawn praise (and Presidential memes) for soothing words during his handling of the coronavirus health crisis, as the Empire state remains the epicenter of COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

In a press briefing March 21, Cuomo urged residents to show their humanity and gentility. "It is a time for a smile when you are walking past someone," he said. "It is a time for a nod. It is a time to say hello. It is a time for patience and don't let the little things get you annoyed. That' s New York at its best."

Of course, he's right, though no one would be able to detect my own wan smile behind several Patagonia neck-warmers standing in for a face mask. It's good to have an even-keeled leader urging constituents not just to stay hardy and brave but to "demonstrate their better selves."

Unfortunately, my better self has gone into hiding. Whenever I head outside right now, I pull my hood up and keep my face down like a perp. I pray nobody calls my name. If I nod it's a whiplash response to turn away. The words I conjure aren't the Governor's but Joni Mitchell's from the song "Last Time I Saw Richard" off her 1971 album Blue. Encountering an old friend (possibly her ex-husband) in a jukebox café, Mitchell bristles at the cynic he's become and snaps, "I'm gonna blow this damn candle out; I don't want nobody comin' over to my table, I got nothing to talk to anybody about."

I'm not normally a misanthrope but the expanding virus has made me regard everyone as an inbound missile and super spreader. In addition to extreme zig-zagging to dodge stray droplets, I've taken to carrying an umbrella, for pressing elevator buttons and pulling doors shut but also in case I need to enforce the six-foot protocol for social distancing. Keep back, citizen!

It's challenging to heed Governor Cuomo's neighborly advice when so many neighbors (and their neighbors) are out and about encroaching on your air space and me on theirs, especially as temperatures climb, schools and offices are closed and everyone is heading to the same public spaces, just as you hear that New York accounts for as much as 5% of virus cases worldwide. The White House special representative for global health estimated on March 24 that that 60% of new viral cases reported in the U.S were linked to New York. Could the government start rationing outdoor time by zip code? Or by age?

I know the chances of contracting COVID by walking past others are slim, particularly when I hug the fences, avert my face and hold my breath (the latter measures are probably placebos). I know the death rates for tuberculosis and annual flu have been far higher than those from the current scourge. I also know I kiss my dog's face even though he licks urine off a garbage bag on the street. But who said dread and avoidance are rational?

Scientists are unsettled on how long the virus remains potent when dispersed in the air. But nobody is encouraging proximate contact with others outside your closest circle. While some parts of the city—i.e., Midtown, Times Square, the subways—appear semi-deserted, and with museums, theaters, restaurants and cafes largely shuttered, the parks have become especially crowded, with many continuing to stroll (or skateboard or jog or dribble) in packs. Some are still taking group exercise classes. If Dr. Anthony Fauci were to head to Central Park's Great Lawn for one of his famous power walks, he'd likely rush back to the relative safety of Donald Trump's press conferences.

It's sad that the very things that have so long sustained me in New York—the density, eavesdropping and over-the-shoulder reading, casual walking friendships—are exactly what I'm currently avoiding. I won't even pick up a quarter or unused dog bag for all the extra surgical hand-scrubbing those actions will require. More aggravating: infections could peak just as Daylight Savings Time extends sunset toward 8 PM. I wish we could all turn our clocks back to November.

Maybe it's the rampant joie de vivre I observe that has me on edge when I venture outside. During a plague should people toss frisbees and strum guitars on benches? Should couples be holding hands? I don't recall any guitar-strumming in Wuhan after the initial outbreak—only grim retreat. At least in Italy they've maintained their bella figura with real separation—singing arias and socializing from their balconies.

The other day I was in Central Park with my two-year-old granddaughter, inching nervously along a path near the tennis courts. Laila insisted I sit on the ground and draw chalk designs. She proceeded to open my umbrella and plop herself in it, tossing twigs and a stone. Passers-by were amused and some friends stopped at a safe span to say hello. A masked jogger waved as he veered by. I was miserable. Governor Cuomo would have approved.

Allan Ripp runs a press relations firm in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Social Distancing? Not Good Enough. Give Me Anti-Social Distancing, ASAP | Opinion | Opinion