Greg Osborne: To curb the second wave, send in the clowns

(Steve Griffin | Deseret News, pool) Utah Gov. Gary Herbert wears a mask as he waits in the hallway before the start of the daily briefing on the state's efforts to fight COVID-19 Wednesday, June 24, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Hebert said he will require face masks at state-run buildings that include liquor stores and higher education offices and approve a request from the state's largest county to make face coverings required in certain situations. But the Republican governor stopped short of implementing a statewide requirement for face coverings as several other states have done such as Washington, California and New York.

Utah is facing a second wave of coronavirus infections. But, while studies prove the effectiveness of communal adoption of mask wearing and a couple of counties have required it, a walk into most convenience stores reveals that a large portion of Utahns refuse to wear masks.

When a legal requirement doesn’t suffice, how do we persuade Utahns to wear face masks and curb a crippling second wave? One option would be to follow an innovative mayor of Bogota, Colombia, who used clowns and education to alter his community’s behavior.

The problem he faced was simple: jaywalking. Few people in Bogota’s busy metropolis paid attention to traffic lights and crosswalks. Instead, they walked across the busy streets wherever and whenever they wanted. Though the problem was simple, the results were devastating. Research showed that Bogota’s jaywalking pandemic crippled traffic, stifled business growth, and resulted in skyrocketing fatalities.

Rather than turning to police to levy tickets on the jaywalkers, the Bogota mayor took an unconventional route: He hired clowns. At his direction, a crew of hired clowns began following jaywalkers, poking fun at their selfish violation of the community’s rules.

In short order, the streets of Bogota became a lighthearted stage for education on traffic norms and proper communal behavior. To avoid the shaming, people stopped jaywalking and traffic congestion cleared. In fact, the clowns proved so successful that Bogota’s traffic deaths decreased by more than 50%.

Jaywalking and Utahn’s refusal to wear masks are not dissimilar. Like unruly traffic that costs lives and damages the economy, a second wave of infections threatens not only Utahns’ lives but also our economy. And, like Bogota’s jaywalkers who stifled traffic and caused dangerous accidents because they wouldn’t walk the extra distance to use a crosswalk, Utahns who refuse to wear masks avoid the minor discomfort of mask wearing and in return endanger those around them while increasing the likelihood of an economy-crushing second wave.

Should Gov. Gary Herbert hire clowns to wander Salt Lake City’s streets, grocery stores and shopping malls? That may not be politically palatable — though I’d find it highly entertaining. But at the very least, Utah should implement some of the lessons learned from Bogota’s successful experiment.

First, just as Bogota used clowns to educate pedestrians about traffic norms, Utah should launch an aggressive education campaign focused on the effectiveness of mask wearing and the communal responsibility of doing so. That Utah has yet to do so is simply irresponsible. Second, in the same way the clowns used social shame to combat jaywalking, Utah should make it shameful to risk others’ health and our local economy by failing to wear a mask. (Utah already has experience with this — for example, recall the state’s Don’t Waste Utah campaign in the 1990s and its success in making littering a shameful act.)

To date Utah’s government has failed miserably to prevent or reduce a second wave. Having received inconsistent messages from our leaders, Utahns continue to enter closed-door public space without masks, risking the health of everybody.

But it’s not too late. To protect Utahns’ lives and our economy, Utah should learn from Bogota’s clown experiment: Harness education and shame to change communal behavior.

Greg Osborne

Greg Osborne is a lawyer in Salt Lake City, at least when he’s not playing in the mountains.

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