On Sunday, 68-year-old Chuck Blair left his home and traveled to Solid Rock Church in Monroe, where he gathered alongside dozens of others to worship.
Despite health care officials’ pleas to continue practicing social distancing and an order from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, and his admonishment that it was “not a Christian thing to do,” Blair still showed up. He was far from alone.
“That’s why I live in America. We have the freedom to do as we wish,” Blair said, adding that he’s healthy for his age and not worried about the possibility of contracting the novel coronavirus, which is deadlier for older age groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Blair and his fellow congregants are among various groups of people in and around Cincinnati who continue to gather despite warnings that doing so promotes the spread of COVID-19, the serious respiratory illness caused by the virus.
Two days before Blair’s trip to church, dozens gathered in Over-the-Rhine, dancing and playing music. Then on Saturday, a video was uploaded to Facebook showing at least eight people socializing on the lawn of a house near the University of Cincinnati.
Why do some defy guidelines set forth by public health and government officials to remain apart?
It’s a complex question, but Lisa Sloane, who works to address disparities in health systems, said a failure to deliver appropriate messaging to some communities may be one factor.
Sloane founded the Cincinnati-based More Inclusive Healthcare, which aims to help hospitals across the country identify implicit bias in care and foster “cultural intelligence.”
She said various factors may have sparked the gathering in OTR. African Americans may feel distrustful of government, she said, given past injustices such as the Tuskegee Study, in which the U.S. Public Health Service withheld effective treatment to black men with syphilis.
Sloane added that low-income communities may also be harder to reach with messaging about the danger of gatherings due to the virus. She said their access to DeWine’s televised press conferences may be limited.
They may also be living in smaller spaces with more people, making enduring isolation more difficult.
Dr. Amy Acton, the director of Ohio’s Department of Health, is one of Sloane’s heroes, but Sloane said “we can’t expect her messaging … to resonate with every population.”
The early method for testing may have also helped more affluent populations get a jump on learning about the virus, Sloane said, as they are the ones who could afford international travel and thus qualify for being tested.
Sloane said people with influence in various communities must help spread the gospel of social distancing.
A man who was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for participating in the OTR gathering could become one such influencer, Sloane said.
“He wants to be a social media hero. We have an opportunity to make him a hero by making him an advocate for social distancing,” Sloane said. “Educate him, understand from him why this is not resonating in his community and neighborhood, talk to him about (his relatives or friends who may be at more at risk). He has to help us find a solution to help people.”
African Americans are being infected and dying from the virus at higher rates, according to reporting by ProPublica. Sloane called on health officials to start collecting race and ethnicity data on COVID-19 patients, to identify those communities most impacted and direct intervention methods to them.
She added that policing is “not a messaging strategy” and would prefer to see a more public-health centered response, such as providing supplies and information, to potential violations of DeWine’s stay-at-home order.
The Cincinnati Police Department referred questions for this story to Mayor John Cranley, who could not be immediately reached Sunday.
Keith Spangler, a psychology and government teacher at North College Hill High School, said people who are going out endanger others’ safety. He’s particularly concerned for his wife and daughter, both of whom work at St. Elizabeth Hospital-Fort Thomas.
But as someone who has earned a master’s degree in psychology, he also understands the complex problem social distancing presents.
“From an evolutionary psychology sense, (we feel there is) safety in numbers,” he said. “When presented with danger or fear, we would gravitate toward others for protection. … The need for affiliation with other people is an emotional need and sometimes that defies logic.”
He also said American individualism could partly explain why some continue to mingle with friends.
“America is about freedom and individualism,” Spangler said. “People believe in that so much that they’ll refuse recommendations to stay at home.”
Social distancing is by no means easy. It can worsen or trigger mental health problems, according to Science News.
“For some people, a lack of social connectedness feels as impactful as not eating,” Dr. Joshua Morganstein, a psychiatrist and disaster mental health expert at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland, told Science News.
On the lawn of the privately owned house on Stratford Avenue near UC, at least eight people gathered, according to the video uploaded to Facebook. DeWine’s order prohibited all gatherings of 11 or more people, with some exceptions for essential activities.
But the order also states that “all public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring outside a single household or living unit are prohibited.”
Video of the gathering on Stratford elicited some critical social media comments.
But smaller gatherings are not entirely uncommon in the area. About two blocks away, about 10 people still live at UC’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon house, according to Drew Greiner, the external vice president of the fraternity and a third-year UC student studying finance and business analytics.
The other nearly 30 members of the house moved out as the virus largely shut down the campus.
Greiner said those still living in the house, which is owned by alumni, have been discouraged by fraternity leadership from hosting visitors, joining groups at other houses and congregating in general areas.
While Greiner said no large parties have occurred at the house since DeWine’s order, the remaining members are allowed to congregate together outside to play games as long as social distancing is practiced as best as possible.
“We’re definitely emphasizing staying at home and avoiding large gatherings,” Greiner said. “Just trying to make sure everyone gets healthy.”