Screaming COVID: Crowdsourced Pandemic Safety Tips for Consumers
Melissa Lee had to take care of not only funeral planning, but her husband, Dan Li, committed suicide in January. She also clashed with Dan’s 1,400-member Facebook group, Athens, GA Mask Grades 2.0, designed to help Athenians protect themselves from COVID-19 by assessing local businesses for security measures.
The group follows a strict template that Melissa Lee compares to a Yelp review. The survey includes information on the company’s policies on physical distancing, accessibility of outdoor services, vaccination requirements, and the percentage of masked employees and clients.
“The mask is like a visible sign of whether you’re listening to the same information or not,” said Lee, who works in the donor relations department at the University of Georgia. “There is some beauty in supporting those who agree with you. But it’s also a little sad that it has two sides. “
COVID vigilantes like Liza have sprung up in many cities, appearing where safety regulations are not followed despite a large number of positive cases.
Some states, such as Florida, have gone so far as to ban local safety regulations, although a group of parents are suing Sunshine State for banning strict bans on the use of masks in schools.
In Georgia, although Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has declared a state of emergency over COVID, there is no mandate for a state mask. The ordinance allows businesses to ignore COVID safety regulations issued by local governments requiring masks.
Similarly, in Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Lee issued a decree banning local mask orders in 89 counties.
These states are in stark contrast to states with tough policies, such as California, where masks are required in hospitals, schools and prisons, regardless of vaccination status.
The lack of government action in some communities is forcing ordinary people to fill the void, according to Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center to Combat Digital Hate, an international non-profit organization dedicated to destroying online disinformation.
“Here you can see that people are acting collectively, essentially copying what governments are supposed to do, but privately out of sheer desperation,” Ahmed said.
Mask Up Huntsville, with about 6,800 members, says its mission is to track mask compliance with local businesses. Alabama currently recommends wearing a mask indoors, but is not eligible. On the public Facebook group, people can also ask others which doctors and dentists are following responsible COVID guidelines and share personal anecdotes about pandemic life. But what is not allowed: political statements of any kind.
In Tennessee, an alleged lack of information from government agencies has led to the creation of a private Facebook group called Knoxville Parents Against COVID. Amanda Jamison Gillen created the group to allow parents to report if their child tests positive for COVID as a warning to other parents amid a vacuum of information in schools.
Knox County Schools recommended the use of face masks in 2020 but did not require them when classes resumed in August. However, in late September, the school district updated its COVID policy following an injunction by a district judge. Masks are now required for all students, staff and visitors, and students must isolate themselves if they test positive for COVID.
China Brackin joined the band in Knoxville on the day it was formed. After about a week, she became one of the group admins to help cope with its rapid growth and check for misinformation.
“One of the main reasons we decided to require moderator approval for posts was to keep conspiracy theories from going wild,” Bracken said.
There is constant misinformation about COVID on the Internet, but Ahmed said that this is not an incentive to create such groups. The sheer amount of information on the Internet can make it difficult to determine the truth. This overabundance of information “has trapped tens of millions of Americans in an alternate world where a horse dehydrator stuck in your ass could cure COVID,” he said.
Arthur Kaplan, professor of bioethics at the Grossman School of Medicine at New York University in New York, said social media groups dedicated to COVID safety are helping to strike a balance.
“Social media has become like a trash heap for crazy people,” Kaplan said. “I love using it as a place where you can really protect yourself, your children, and try to form communities that try to do the right thing, not undermine public health efforts.”
Dan Lee opened a page about Athens, inspired by the efforts in Huntsville. Its public page reached over 2,000 members before it was reported by Facebook users who disagree with the group’s posts. As a workaround, he created private version 2.0.
According to Melissa Lee, Dan had mental health problems and the pandemic could make things worse. “That year of bubbling society could have had a very good effect on his mental health,” she said. “It clearly bothered him.”
But members continued his work by volunteering to administer the site after his suicide, she said. While difficult to track down, the Facebook group may have a greater impact.
For example, in August, a member of the group wrote about Earth Fare, a grocery chain that does not support mask claims. Two days after we were accused on social media, Earth Fare Athens posted the following on Facebook: “We totally agree with the issues mentioned. Coming into force immediately and we will follow all local regulations. ” The company declined to comment for this story.
Facebook and other social media platforms can be useful to reinforce and support public health advice, said Glen Novak, co-director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at the University of Georgia. “The main idea is to show people who are in favor of something that there are other people who also support that you are not alone.”
However, Novak said caution is needed, especially when it comes to specific scientific issues. “The value of these groups lies in the exchange of experience,” he said. “It is difficult to rely on non-expert sources for matters that are mainly related to science or medicine.”
There are also concerns that online groups are not widely available outside of white, educated and social media-savvy communities, Kaplan noted.
“The usual barriers exist for poor people who may empathize but do not have access to the Internet,” he said. Or those who “do not feel comfortable getting into a discussion group that is almost entirely white.”
However, in the absence of COVID safety requirements, groups like these are proving useful to consumers like Travis Henry. This helps him make informed decisions.
“I don’t want to know the cumulative trends for every grocery store in America,” Henry said. “I want to know about half a dozen I can drive up to and which one has the most masked people, or which one has Plexiglas windows.”
Need help? If you or someone you know is in a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME on the Crisis Line at 741741.