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KEVIN LEININGER: COVID-19 response full of trade-offs, but responsibility always helps

Peck's Food owner Theodore Peck stands on the sidewalk outside his business while closing his coffee shop and bakery due to the coronavirus outbreak in Brooklyn. (AP photo)
Kevin Leininger

In 1991, a day after several hundred AIDS activists had staged a “die-in” near his home in Kennebunkport, Maine, President George H. W. Bush actually dared to suggest that “Here’s a disease where you can control its spread by your own personal behavior. You can’t do that in cancer.”

“If the president listened to public health officials instead of (then-Sen.) Jesse Helms, he’d understand that AIDS threatens every American,” responded a spokesman for the Boston AIDS Action Committee. “Clearly, the big behavioral change needed is at the White House.”

Embroiled as it was in the contentious debate over gay sex and other political and cultural issues, such exchanges were common in the early, deadly days of AIDS’ intrusion into the American consciousness. Nearly 30 years later, the world’s response to COVID-19 demonstrates what happens when a threat is perceived simply as a disease, not a cause:

Almost everybody has been told — ordered, even — to change their behavior for the sake of themselves and others. Wash your hands. Maintain a proper “social distance.” Sneeze into your sleeve. Don’t shake hands or continue to work if your business isn’t “essential.”

Still, the response here and elsewhere reveals how even a worldwide pandemic is not immune to other concerns — less political than the give-and-take over AIDS, perhaps, but no less real: The economy. Privacy. And the very human desire to maintain a semblance of a normal life even in the face of an invisible but deadly threat.

Last week, even before I wrote Saturday about how some businesses are still allowed to sell certain items while other businesses selling some of the same things have been forced to close as “non-essential,” the commissioners in Howard County acted as though they had read my mind.

“There have been numerous reports and complaints concerning businesses that sell both essential goods as well as good that are deemed non-essential,” they wrote. “Moreover, reports have come from store employees who witness customers congregating at the store because they are bored at home and come to the store to browse and buy only non-essential goods.”

As a result, “essential” multi-purpose stores in the Kokomo area can no longer sell such non-essential items as jewelry, furniture, toys, carpet, non-emergency appliances, books, paint and entertainment electronics.

Preventing people from congregating is, of course, a good way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But the commissioners’ own words made it clear their motive was economic and possibly political, not medical: They explicitly were trying to make things more “fair” for businesses that had been closed.

Saturday night my wife and I ordered a carry-out dinner from a popular Fort Wayne restaurant. When I arrived, a line of customers snaked through the otherwise deserted dining room, properly separated by several Xes taped to the floor. There were way more than 10 people there, and social distancing was impossible at check out, not to mention the pens, bags and other items touched by who knows how many hands. At least a bottle of sanitizer was prominently displayed at the door.

Other restaurants have decided offering carry out during a pandemic is not worth the risk. “The decision on whether to remain open has weighed heavily on us from the first day. While we would love to continue to adapt and find a way forward, we feel it best for our community and for our staff to close for a minimum of the next two weeks in order to do our part to keep this community safe,” the owners of Baker Street, Proximo and The Hoppy Gnome wrote on Facebook this week.

Privacy concerns, however, seem to trump just about everything.

Even if officials thought disclosing the names of COVID-19 patients was in the public interest, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 would not allow it, according to Megan Hubartt, spokeswoman for the Allen County Department of Health. Naming names wouldn’t help in this case, she said, because of “community spread” — the possible transfer of the virus even among people who have not been tested and show no symptoms. “That’s why the precautions are in place. People have to assume (they could be exposed),” she said.

The department does try to identify and notify people who may have been exposed to known victims, Hubartt added, and would alert the public to possible exposure when warranted — such as it did earlier this month after a person who tested positive for COVID-19 attended the Home and Garden Show at the Memorial Coliseum.

Put it all together and what does it mean? Life is the sum of many parts, often of near-equal legitimacy, and common sense and responsible behavior will improve most of them. Let’s try to remember that now and always, even when it’s not politically correct to say so.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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