By the time you read this column, more than 130,000 Americans will have died due to COVID-19.

In late May and early June, it looked like we had left the pandemic’s worst days behind us. But the past two weeks have seen new cases and hospitalizations skyrocket as Florida, Texas, California and other states across the southern and western portions of the country set new daily records for the disease. Those numbers in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania began to backslide as well.

How did this happen?

On June 30, I decided against my better judgment to take a trip to the Willow Grove Mall. There was a gift I needed at a store open there, and I planned a quick in-and-out trip. In all the shopping excursions I’ve made since March to the grocery store, the hardware store and even Target, I’ve seen people universally behaving well, wearing masks, keeping distant (for the most part) and taking the threat of this virus seriously. The mall was a much different story.

There weren’t a lot of people in the mall, but many who were seemed to have a dim view of wearing masks. I saw masks on chins, masks not covering noses, masks held in hands or hanging off ears. Shop employees were doing their best to keep people without masks on out of their stores, but in the store I entered, several young men had to be “reminded” several times to put their masks on or be ushered out. They eventually complied but not without a lot of complaining, as if wearing a mask was asking too much.

I left the mall demoralized. If our way out of the pandemic required relying on the good judgment of the population, we are all in trouble. If all that is required of us is putting a mask on and we can’t handle it, what hope do we have?

Writing this week in The Atlantic, Penn professor of law and psychology, Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, makes the case that blaming individuals for making bad decisions is not only ineffective, but misses the real culprit of our country’s complete backslide into pandemic catastrophe – the absence of clear, institutional leadership. People have been told that the country is reopening. They have not been given the clearest direction about what that reopening means, how risky activities like dining outside or getting a haircut actually are. Wearing a mask and washing hands are straightforward enough, but people are being asked to navigate pretty unclear territory, like what it means to hold safe, socially distanced gatherings in their backyards.

“America’s half-hearted reopening is a psychological morass, a setup for defeat that will be easy to blame on irresponsible individuals while culpable institutions evade scrutiny,” Wilkinson-Ryan wrote.

I couldn’t agree more. What we needed was clear leadership at the national level and in those states now seeing their numbers surge. We weren’t all ready to reopen yet. Our haste and carelessness could mean things get much worse before they get better.

Pete Mazzaccaro

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