When will it end? Social distancing, uncertainty make coronavirus uniquely challenging

In Baltimore and elsewhere, the novel coronavirus is upending things in ways we’ve never experienced. Forget about coming together in a time of crisis. We’re not supposed to touch. And it’s worse than a snowstorm, because we don’t know when it will end.

“Social distancing,” an Orwellian-sounding phrase many of us had never heard until recently, is suddenly a way of life. Schools, libraries, museums, courts — the major institutions of public life — are closed, as public officials scramble to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, a highly contagious respiratory illness that has killed more than 5,000 people.


As of Friday, the U.S. had reported a total of 1,215 cases and 36 deaths across the nation. Maryland is reporting 19 cases.

‘We’re being asked to isolate ourselves’

At first, this latest disruption of daily life reminded Michael Evitts of 2015, when unrest following the death of Freddie Gray closed businesses in Baltimore and led to a citywide curfew. Back then, Downtown Partnership, where Evitts works, encouraged residents to “come together” and to support local businesses and restaurants.


But the coronavirus has revealed itself to be an altogether different crisis.

For one thing, health experts and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control encourage people to practice social distancing, defined as keeping six feet away from the next person, and avoiding groups. Social distancing measures during pandemic can include closing childcare centers, malls and movie theaters, suspending religious services. Mass transit may be shut down.

The rationale is simple. “When you decrease social interaction in a community there’s going to be less opportunity for a disease to spread,” Tom Inglesby, director of Johns Hopkins’ Center for Health Security, explained in a podcast.

Proponents point to the example of the 1918 influenza epidemic. In Philadelphia, where authorities continued to allow public gatherings until well after the disease had spread, the death rate was twice as high as in St. Louis, where measures to limit public gatherings were put in place before the illness hit the city hard.

But social distancing can wreak havoc on communities, both economically and psychologically. “We’re being asked to isolate ourselves,” said Evitts, the Downtown Partnership’s vice president of communications. “What we’re all being asked to do globally is not come together.”

Baltimore-based economist Anirban Basu worries that distancing will become the norm.

‘It’s just a moving target’

As spring emerges, restaurants and other businesses often count on increased traffic as people embrace warmer weather and celebrate the end of winter. Instead, many are now finding a drastic slowdown as schools close, major events are cancelled, and people stay indoors.

The worst part? No one knows for how long, said Basu.


“If you have a really wicked snowstorm in February, you know it’s going to be gone by April,” said Basu. In this case, he said, organizers forced to cancel events don’t know when, or even if, they’ll be able to reschedule. With events like March Madness and others, the economic impact may be forever lost. He worries especially about people in the gig economy, like Uber drivers facing a huge drop off in customers. “This is going to cause a lot of economic pain,” he said.

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Further deepening the pain: People tend to make worse economic decisions in times of uncertainty, Basu said. “The fact of the matter is a lot of people will be economically damaged” by this pandemic. “And obviously, the more alarming news is that many people are going to pass away because of this.”

Downtown Partnership hopes to work with area business on economic recovery when the time comes, Evitts said. “But we don’t know how bad or not bad it’s going to be.”

For Basu, the virus has had a personal impact. He’s seen 13 speeches cancelled at conferences across the country. “My business depends on a lot of public speaking,” he said. “This is frankly a dreadful period for us.”

“It’s just a moving target right now,” said Peggy Daidakis, executive director oft he Baltimore Convention Center. They’ve already had 17 cancellations for events and are trying to find new dates when possible or provide refunds when an organizer can’t reschedule. “We’re trying to work with them on some leniency so we’re not the ogres saying, ‘Well it’s too bad.’”

Some events have found new dates. Two joint building conferences, the NFMT and the Clean Buildings Expo, together bring anywhere from 7,000 to 8,000 attendees and vendors to the convention center each spring, with an estimated $2.5 million to $3 million impact on Baltimore, according to a spokesman.


But on Wednesday, organizers made the decision to postpone the conferences, scheduled for this weekend, until mid August.

By then, they hope, the worst will be over.