Three Steps for Safe Living

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The most effective public health messages don’t merely tell people what not to do. They also tell people what they can do with only a small amount of risk.

This sometimes feels counterintuitive, because it gives people permission to take some risks, rather than urging maximum safety all the time. In the long run, though, a more realistic approach is actually the safer one, many experts say.

Human beings are social creatures. Most aren’t going to sit inside their houses for months on end. And pretending otherwise tends to backfire. It leads people to ignore public health advice and take needlessly big risks. “We need different, more nuanced, and more practical messaging about coronavirus safety,” Sarit Golub, a psychology professor at Hunter College, has written.

(Federal officials took a step in this direction this week by shortening the recommended quarantine period after virus exposure.)

Today, I want to give you a three-step guide to risk minimization. It’s based on a Times survey of 700 epidemiologists as well as my conversations with experts and colleagues, like Donald G. McNeil Jr.

1. There is one behavior you should try to eliminate, without exception: Spending time in a confined space (outside your household) where anyone is unmasked.

Don’t eat indoors at a restaurant or friend’s house. Don’t have close, unmasked conversations anywhere, even outdoors. If you must fly, try to not to eat or drink on the plane. If you’re going to work, don’t have lunch in the same room as colleagues. Group lunches have led to outbreaks at hospitals and elsewhere.

2. This next set of behaviors is best to minimize if you can’t avoid it: Spending extended time in indoor spaces, even with universal masking.

Masks aren’t perfect. If you can work out at home rather than at a gym — or do your job or attend religious services remotely — you’re reducing your risk.

3. Now the better news: Several activities are less risky than some people fear.

You don’t need to wear a mask when you go for a walk or a jog. Donald, who’s famously careful, bikes without a mask. “I consider keeping six feet distant outdoors more important than wearing a mask,” he told me. “If I had a birthday candle in my hand and you’re too far away to blow it out, I can’t inhale whatever you exhale.”

You can also feel OK about doing many errands. About 90 percent of the epidemiologists in our survey have recently visited a grocery store, a pharmacy or another store. Just wear a mask, stay distant from others and wash your hands afterward.

The big picture: I find it helpful to think about the notion of a personal risk budget. I don’t spend any of my risk budget on supermarket shopping, because grocery delivery works well for my family. But I do take occasional unmasked, distant walks with one or two friends. They help keep me sane as we head into a long, very hard winter.

For more: The survey of epidemiologists — done by Margot Sanger-Katz, Claire Cain Miller and Quoctrung Bui of The Times — has much more, including how they’re thinking about a vaccine.

  • Two hurricanes hit Central America in quick succession last month, and the destruction is only now becoming clear: Infrastructure, cropland and tens of thousands of homes are gone.

  • A fast-moving wildfire in Southern California has spread to more than 6,000 acres so far this week, and has forced the evacuation of 25,000 residents.

  • Timnit Gebru, a researcher on artificial intelligence and one of the few Black women in her field, said Google had fired her after she pushed the company to increase minority hiring and drew attention to the racial biases built into A.I. systems.

  • Molly Gibson, a Tennessee baby born in October, set the record for the longest-frozen embryo to result in a live birth, more than 27 years.

Modern Love: Tough times may not bring love, but for a young woman, they bring clarity.

From Opinion: David Brooks, Michelle Goldberg and Nicholas Kristof have columns.

Lives Lived: When Betsy Wade started at The Times in 1956, she broke a century-old tradition of men copy editing in the news department. She also fought a sex discrimination case against the paper and became the first woman to lead the Newspaper Guild of New York. She died at 91.


Even when the pandemic ends, the movie business won’t quickly — or maybe ever — return to the old normal.

Warner Bros., one of the top movie studios, acknowledged as much yesterday by announcing that it will debut its entire slate of 2021 movies on its streaming service, HBO Max, the same day that they enter U.S. theaters. The list of 17 movies includes blockbusters like “Dune,” “The Matrix 4” and a “Suicide Squad” sequel.

“WarnerMedia is calling this a ‘unique one-year plan,’” Brooks Barnes, a media reporter for The Times, tweeted. “But there will be no going back. HBO Max needs the content and consumers will not just say ‘oh, okay’ when they can’t have instant access anymore.”

WarnerMedia has its own reasons for emphasizing streaming. It wants to expand HBO Max — which has struggled to attract subscribers since its introduction in May — into a streaming service that can compete with Netflix and Disney Plus. Warner Bros. is also a powerful enough studio that the change “has the ability to upend the theatrical model that so many have relied on for so long,” Nicole Sperling, a Times media reporter, told us.

Outside the U.S., where HBO Max is not yet available, Warner’s 2021 movies will receive traditional theatrical releases. For a sense of how theaters are faring in some countries where the virus is under better control: In October, more than 3.4 million people in Japan turned out to see an animated movie, “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train,” in its opening weekend.

The pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was heavily. Today’s puzzle is above — or you can play online if you have a Games subscription.

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