Why COVID fatigue makes it tough to see the virus as a common threat

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Health officials have banned outdoor dining in LA County until the coronavirus surge goes down. Starting Wednesday at 10 p.m., local restaurants must return to takeout and delivery only.

Barbara Ferrer, director of the LA Department of Public Health, said in a statement that the measures are meant to limit mixing in situations where people are not wearing masks and can spread the virus. But the move will likely hit many local restaurants hard. 

Jot Condie is head of the California Restaurant Association. He told KCRW reporter Benjamin Gottlieb, "For the restaurants that are still around — and the numbers of restaurant closures are mounting by the day — really sort of outdoor dining and sidewalks and parking lots is [sic] the only way for them to stay afloat.”

This follows last week’s county-wide order that required restaurants to cut their outdoor dining capacity by 50%.

"At least in a restaurant … you have a staff who are constantly assuring that guests are adhering to the protocols. … If you have to go to the restroom, put the mask on,” Condie said. “So it's a safer environment to eat in the restaurant than it is in your friend's living room."

But how truly safe is it to eat outside with friends? Why are people willing to risk dining out when COVID-19 has killed nearly 19,000 people in California?

“It’s unfortunate, but it’s actually true that restaurants and coffee bars are spreading this virus right now,” Paula Cannon tells Greater LA. She’s a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Keck School of Medicine at USC. 

UCLA doctoral student Benjamin Seitz has studied the psychological impact of the virus, and he says this is largely because humans can’t see the virus, so it’s tough to assess the risk.

“We do have this common threat that should be bringing us all together and that we can rally behind. But because we can’t see it, it’s hard to … get that messaging across to people,” Seitz says.

Still, Cannon thinks there can be power in the right messaging, even if it doesn’t work on everyone.

“I think appealing to people’s sense of doing something bigger, that they’re doing this for their friends, their family, and the broader community and their favorite restaurant — that’s the message I try to say. But I don’t know if it’s working anymore,” she says.