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People are largely following the coronavirus rules — but will that self-control last?

The Fours Restaurant and Sports Bar advertises takeout on Canal Street on Saturday. The streets in Boston have been deserted on weekend nights amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Fours Restaurant and Sports Bar advertises takeout on Canal Street on Saturday. The streets in Boston have been deserted on weekend nights amid the coronavirus pandemic.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The streets are empty as residents hunker down. When people do venture out, most dutifully stay 6 feet from others.

For now, people are largely heeding the state’s stay-at-home advisory and social distancing guidelines aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. But how long can people in a nation that prizes personal freedoms be expected to comply with the measures? What if this drags on for months, or, as top epidemiologists project, the rules are relaxed and reimposed intermittently when new outbreaks emerge until drugs or a vaccine become available, possibly in a year?

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Nobody can say for sure. But experts told The Boston Globe that most people are likely to struggle with the rules in the long run — unless they know their actions truly make an impact.

Scenes from an eerily empty Boston
Boston empties out to slow the spread of COVID-19 Tuesday after Gov. Baker's stay-at-home advisory went into effect. (Caitlin Healy/Globe staff, Shelby Lum/Globe staff)

“Either people will have faith that what they’re being told to do is necessary and makes sense and they’re being given enough rationale for it and information — or it’ll be very difficult for them to stick with it,” said Dr. Edward Silberman, a psychiatrist at Tufts Medical Center.

The psychological toll of sequestering at home could come into play, Silberman said. As social creatures, humans crave time with those they care about, he said, including people they see regularly who aren’t friends or family.

But another scientist who studies behavior said that as time goes on, sticking to the rules may get easier as people adapt to new habits while working from home, calling loved ones on FaceTime, and going for walks. It doesn’t take long for something that starts as strange to feel more natural, said Katherine Milkman, a behavioral science professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

And, she added, humans’ social needs also mean that they care deeply about fitting in with their “herd.” Seeing friends on Facebook homeschooling their children, for example, reinforces that staying home is the social norm, and the right thing to do.

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“People are actually quite adaptable,” Milkman said. “Doing a thing that’s unpleasant day in and day out gets easier over time, and gets easier when we see that everyone else is doing it.”

While home from school during the coronavirus pandemic, Cecilia Conway played with the family cat, Darla, while her brother James Conway, looked on, and stepfather, John Taraborelli, worked from home in Cranston, R.I.
While home from school during the coronavirus pandemic, Cecilia Conway played with the family cat, Darla, while her brother James Conway, looked on, and stepfather, John Taraborelli, worked from home in Cranston, R.I.Matthew J. Lee/GLOBE STAFF

Public health authorities could motivate people to stick with the changes, she said, through channeling the “identifiable victim effect,” meaning publicly sharing the faces and stories of people who could be hurt if the community broke the rules. Studies show that people care far more about a cause when they hear a personal story than just statistics, she said.

Even within the federal government, a debate rages over the rules, which could prompt more people to flout them.

President Trump has suggested that the economically devastating restrictions were worse than the virus itself and said he wanted the country’s businesses “opened up" by Easter. But on Sunday he reversed course and extended social distancing guidelines through April, after New York’s hospitals became increasingly overwhelmed and his advisers projected up to 200,000 Americans could die, even with aggressive actions were taken to slow the virus’ spread.

Kristopher Cere, 32, a Jamaica Plain resident who lost his catering job due to the coronavirus closures, said that as much as he and others who were laid off need to start working again, the country should heed the experts.

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“It’s going to be difficult, but if the scientists say it’s what we need to do, we have to do it to save as many lives as possible,” Cere said. “The quicker we abide by all this, the quicker we can get back to work."

For those who are able to work from home, the measures are even less difficult to handle, said Richard Bonanno, 54, a professor of Italian studies at Assumption College in Worcester. He recommended people read historical accounts of pandemics, famine, and war for perspective, including Anne Frank’s diary, which recounts the hardships of a Jewish teenager who hid from the Nazis for two years in an attic with her family.

“This is so minimal, what we’re required to do for the good of others,” said Bonanno, a Cambridge resident. “We have the luxury of being able to stretch out in our homes, of being able to follow our routines, and this wonderful digital world that allows us to connect with others.”

Baker announced last Monday that he was shutting down the state’s nonessential businesses, prompting relief from many who had started staying home weeks ago and watched as others didn’t.

“It stunk that it’s taken this long,” said Caty Yuen, 30, a biotech marketing professional who has worked from her South Boston home since March 10. “We can’t even start to see any kind of light at the end of the tunnel until everyone stops going out.”

Enforcing the rules also could prompt people to comply, as authorities in Italy, Spain, and France have done.

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The Baker administration’s new order allows for police to penalize those who gather in groups of more than 10. A first offense would result in a warning, followed by a $300 fine for a second offense and a $500 fine or prison for additional offenses.

Kaylin Ridge, 22, a student at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said she hoped the rules would end in a few weeks.

“That would be really hard” if the situation continued for months, Ridge said, noting that she would struggle to visit her family in North Carolina. “Everything being so different and not being able to go out and get things if I want them is kind of frustrating.”

Jill Veader, 20, a North Reading college student and Market Basket cashier, said she was managing fine with her current distractions of work and online classes, for now.

“Once classes end and you really don’t have anything to do, that’s when it’ll be the most difficult,” she said. “Another month or two of this I’m down for, but after that it makes me nervous.”


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.