Sorry, State Lines Don't Stop Coronavirus | Opinion

When new coronavirus infections near you begin to slow, your relief could be tough to contain.

You may be tempted to get back to normal right away: to venture out and hit the gym, the movies, the coffee shop. State authorities will feel enormous pressure to relax their restrictions on everyday life—despite the public health guidance to avoid lowering our guard too soon.

Nothing less than human life will remain at risk as we fight the urge to reopen society before infection curves flatten and dip nationwide. To prevent a tragic resurgence of the infection, communities must understand now how we're likely to interpret—or misinterpret—life-threatening hazards.

Dangerously, we appear predisposed to believe that political boundaries, like state or county lines, can influence the spread of disaster. About a decade ago, our research found that people underestimate the odds that a calamity in a nearby state will reach them. If the same calamity is in their own state—but the same distance away—they're not likely to make the miscalculation.

In effect, people somehow perceive human-drawn borders as physical protection against peril like earthquakes, nuclear catastrophe and fires. We've called this error in perception "border bias."

The current supercharged news cycle and public opinion are showing the border bias in play again. While 43 states have imposed stay-at-home orders, the other seven have held off. Governors in the hold-out states offer different reasons, but they're united in arguing the mandates don't make the best sense for their counties where cases are not widespread.

Such inconsistent messaging and directives not only reinforce border bias but also elevate risks. Consider states like Florida, Georgia and Louisiana, all of which focused on high-infection counties and were slow to clamp down on travel and other exposure risks. Now, they're being eyed as likely hot spots for infection and death.

California Coronavirus Interstate
An aerial view shows a sign near Interstate 5 urging people to stay home in the effort to manage the coronavirus pandemic on April 12 in Downey, California. David McNew/Getty

Biased perception of risk in this climate can be fatal. Low infection numbers can foster a false sense of security for some areas, encouraging people to move around locally, ignore social distancing and see the pandemic as a problem only for existing hot spots, like New York and New Jersey.

A coronavirus cluster several counties away or in the neighboring state may feel like a safe distance, but our world is more like an infected cruise ship than we care to imagine: What happens in a lower deck will happen here, too. It's just a matter of time.

Since the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in the United States in January, more than half a million Americans have tested positive. Although there are signs of hope, it's crucial that we all confront the false protection of political borders and keep it from shaping our individual habits and public policy. State and county lines won't stop us from being in this together.

Arul and Himanshu Mishra are David Eccles professors of marketing at the David Eccles School of Business, part of the University of Utah.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.