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‘They’re taking it too lightly’: Young people, spurred by apathy or confusion, have failed to heed official warnings to self-isolate

A line formed outside a South Boston bar Saturday afternoon, despite calls for "social distancing."
A line formed outside a South Boston bar Saturday afternoon, despite calls for "social distancing."Twitter user @Joe721 (custom credit)/Twitter user @Joe721

Joe Colucci is the picture of youth and vitality.

A sophomore at Emerson College, he is fit and social, a baseball player from New Jersey. And so, even as his school is being shut down and state and city officials have urged social distancing in an effort to slow the steamrolling coronavirus, he sees no reason to isolate himself.

“I’m kind of that mind where I don’t really want to put my life on pause,” said Colucci, who has avoided bars and public transportation but continued to make near-daily trips to the gym. “I’m young, I’m healthy. Even if I do get it, I’m not likely to get seriously ill.”

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In the wake of an unprecedented pandemic, public health officials have begged Americans, with growing urgency, to stay at home unless absolutely necessary. On Sunday afternoon, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, after already announcing the closure of Boston’s schools through April 27, said he was limiting occupancy at the city’s bars, restaurants, and clubs to 50 percent of what’s typical. Just a few hours later, Governor Charlie Baker took the extraordinary step of banning any gathering in Massachusetts larger than 25 people.

But even in the midst of these dire measures, a large swath of the local population — including many in their 20s and 30s — has yet to heed the message.

Over the weekend, a number of viral images showed young people packing into bars and restaurants in Boston and other cities. Some have jokingly filled social media with photos of themselves drinking Corona beer, a bizarre homage to a virus that has killed more than 6,500 worldwide. Others have happily scooped up dirt-cheap flights, proceeding with trips despite the quickly intensifying warnings of public officials to avoid travel.

“When I get home, I’ll get tested, if they’re available," said Emerson College sophomore Truman Segal, who purchased an $80 round-trip ticket to Orlando last Monday and spent the past weekend bouncing from amusement park to amusement park. “But I wanted to have a little fun before that.”

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Such cavalier behavior has vexed public health officials across the country, who have continued to insist that the best way to slow the novel coronavirus’s spread and limit the inevitable deaths to come is to isolate ourselves from each other unless absolutely necessary.

During a Sunday morning appearance on “Meet the Press,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, urged young people to consider that the social-distancing measures are about more than just them.

“Remember that you can also be a vector or a carrier," he said. “And even though you [might not] get seriously ill, you could bring it to a person, who could bring it to a person, that would bring it to your grandfather, your grandmother, or your elderly relative.”

It’s a point that has been echoed by countless physicians and public health experts in recent days, as the number of confirmed cases has ballooned to 3,000 nationally, with the actual total believed to be much higher. Some experts worry that America is on pace to become the next Italy, a country ravaged by the disease in recent weeks.

Epidemiologists have said that young people spread Covid-19 faster and farther because they’re more socially active than older adults. They’re also more likely to carry the disease undetected if their symptoms are mild or nonexistent, especially in countries like the US, where diagnostic testing is severely limited. Data from South Korea, where testing for the virus is widespread, show adults ages 20 to 29 were carriers of nearly 30 percent of confirmed cases.

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“For every person the virus infects, it manages to infect two other people,” said Bill Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics. “If you can stop half the infections, we’re going to be able to keep this under control.”

But the odds of doing so, some worry, are dwindling, as some young people fail to heed the warnings of experts and continue to go about their daily lives.

“They’re taking it too lightly, almost like they’re invincible,” said Christian Kaufmann, 57, of South Boston. “The lines yesterday [outside bars] were quite surprising — at 2 p.m., let alone at night.”

At Emerson College, Katie Rhee, a senior studying journalism and sports broadcasting, said she’s been unnerved by the lack of concern among her peers, some of whom have continued to joke about the virus while others have complained about having their brunches spoiled by efforts to limit crowds in public spaces.

“It’s shocking," said Rhee. “It’s hard to process.”

Reasons for the laisez-faire attitude run the gamut. Some appear genuinely unconcerned about the virus. Others seem to grasp the gravity of the situation and reasoning for social distancing. But many struggle with the rapidly evolving stream of information.

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“People are adjusting to a new reality each day," said Colleen O’Brien, 28, of Somerville. “We don’t have anybody to base our behavior on. I wake up every day and call my mom, and she’s equally confused.”

On Sunday, with the scheduled St. Patrick’s Day parade canceled and South Boston bars agreeing to close in the interest of public safety, many 20- and 30-somethings gathered anyway, on porches and patios, atop rooftop decks.

Along Broadway, vendors hawked kelly-green merchandise from parking lot tents. Clusters of young men in Celtics jerseys and green beads hauled boxes of beer. Earlier in the day, video of a patchwork parade had made the social media rounds — a defiant envoy of vehicles rolling through the neighborhood’s streets, horns honking.

“Social distancing,” joked 25-year-old Joanna Gabbert of Somerville, during an afternoon house party with some 10 or 15 guests, "starts tomorrow.”

At one point Sunday, a man wearing a kilt and playing the bagpipes marched down a residential street as residents cheered from nearby windows and porches. Suddenly, a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon sailed toward the street, an offering from the masses gathered on a rooftop patio.

The bagpiper, a handsome 26-year-old named Kirk Brunson, snatched the beer from mid-air, cracked it open, and chugged, much to the delight of the 20-something women gathered above.

It was the kind of debaucherous scene that, in ordinary times, would’ve felt right at home during a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in this compact and storied neighborhood.

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But these, of course, were not ordinary times.

Globe reporter Deanna Pan contributed to this report.


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.