NOEL KING, HOST:
All right. So what do you do if you see someone who is not wearing a mask or standing too close in the supermarket? Do you shame them into doing the right thing? NPR's Jerome Socolovsky went to Rock Creek Park here in D.C. to investigate this urge.
JEROME SOCOLOVSKY, BYLINE: I'm on a street here in the park that's been closed off by the city to allow people to get out and get some exercise while maintaining social distance. There are bikers and joggers and some people out for a stroll. Some of them are wearing masks but a lot of people aren't. Debony Hughes (ph) has covered her mouth and nose and feels everyone else should, too.
DEBONY HUGHES: And particularly, with the bike riders and the runners, I feel like they should respect the distance and also wear a mask.
SOCOLOVSKY: But she says she kept that opinion to herself during her six-mile hike. A friend she drove to the park with the other day did not.
HUGHES: It was a beautiful day. It was really crowded, and we noticed that there was so many people without masks. So she started screaming out of the car, put on your mask. Where's your mask? So (laughter) - and she had a few other expletives in there, but I won't say that (laughter).
SOCOLOVSKY: It's not mandatory to wear a mask in Washington, D.C.; neither is it in most U.S. states. And that frustrates many Americans who worry about how easily the coronavirus spreads, says Northeastern University health law professor Aziza Ahmed.
AZIZA AHMED: In these moments of uncertainty, we all suddenly feel the need to police our own behavior but also police other people's behavior, as well.
SOCOLOVSKY: Ahmed has studied epidemics, but the consequences of this one hit home a few weeks ago. She gave birth at a hospital in Boston that treats a lot of COVID patients.
AHMED: It was a scary experience. And I could tell the health care workers were on edge and I was on edge. And, you know, everyone was trying their best in a really hard situation.
SOCOLOVSKY: Ahmed says it's reasonable to ask someone to move away if they're within six feet of you. But if the issue is that they're not wearing a mask, it may be best to leave them alone.
AHMED: You know, we have to ask why aren't they wearing a mask? Is it someone actually trying to intentionally expose somebody else to COVID? I think that, in our current moment, we're all trying not to get sick. And it's best to approach all these situations with some level of empathy.
SOCOLOVSKY: One place empathy is in short supply these days is on social media. Syon Bhanot teaches behavioral economics at Swarthmore College and says the local networking site Nextdoor - there is full of neighbors venting.
SYON BHANOT: A lot of it is saying, you know, what's wrong with you people? What are you guys doing? Why are there packs of kids outside?
SOCOLOVSKY: With all the economic suffering that's resulted from social distancing, he's not surprised people are pushing back against constraints. It's just human psychology, he says.
BHANOT: You can probably think about it as, anytime you're confronted - like, you confront your spouse for not taking out the garbage or something - there's a sort of self-defense reflexive mechanism of, well, you know, but you didn't do the dishes last night or something, right?
SOCOLOVSKY: And confronting someone you don't know carries the risk of escalation, he says. If, instead, you snap a picture of them and post it on social media, you may think you're communicating proper behavior.
BHANOT: But at the same time, you're also broadcasting a bad norm. So you're saying, look at all these 50 people in this park. And a lot of people will look at that and say, well, I mean, there are 50 people in the park, though, so maybe it's actually not that bad.
SOCOLOVSKY: He says it's better to post a picture of yourself with a mask and react positively to others who do the same. If that convinces just a couple people and they do it too, he says compliance with social distancing will multiply like a virus.
Jerome Socolovsky, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF FEVERKIN'S "JULY")
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