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Confusion Reigns Nationwide Amid Conflicting Coronavirus Rules

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The information on how to best protect yourself from the coronavirus has been confusing, to say the least. Take masks. President Trump dismissed them for months. Now he says they're patriotic. There's also conflicting messages on testing, shopping, exercising, you name it. As Nina Feldman at member station WHYY explains, communication has become so chaotic on pandemic precautions that people are making important safety decisions they just don't feel qualified to make.

NINA FELDMAN, BYLINE: This spring, while Philadelphia was under strict lockdown, Tess Wilkinson-Ryan's husband was out walking their dog when he got the leash tangled around his ankle, fell back and knocked his head.

TESS WILKINSON-RYAN: And I said sort of like, are you feeling OK? And I said, like, ha-ha, you know, quick, who's the president? And he said, deadpan, George Bush. And he wasn't joking.

FELDMAN: For the next few hours, Wilkinson-Ryan struggled. She was trying to figure out if her husband had a serious concussion. And even if he did, should they go to the ER? What about all the coronavirus patients?

WILKINSON-RYAN: And I thought, this is outrageous. This is a decision that requires expertise, and the stakes are actually pretty high. And in that case, asking individuals to navigate it is actually not fair.

FELDMAN: Wilkinson-Ryan, who teaches psychology and law at the University of Pennsylvania, finally reached a doctor friend who helped her calculate the risk. She and her husband walked to the hospital. He was triaged into a non-COVID wing, and he's now fine. But had she not called her friend with expertise, Wilkinson-Ryan would have had no way of knowing what to do.

WILKINSON-RYAN: It struck me that we couldn't possibly be the only people in this situation.

FELDMAN: When the pandemic first started, directions were clear - stay home. But now, depending on where you are, some businesses are starting to open while others have had to close again. In Pennsylvania, the governor uses a phased reopening system based on the colors of a stoplight. But that got confusing pretty quickly. When a county was ready to switch from yellow to green, it was natural to assume that green meant go. But in some cases, restrictions remained. So instead, green signals, take it slow. That can make it hard to know what green really means.

ELLEN PETERS: People are perceiving mixed messages.

FELDMAN: That's Ellen Peters. She studies science communication at the University of Oregon.

PETERS: From OK, we're going to go ahead and start opening up as a state or as a city, but we really do want you to stay home most of the time. And to a lot of people, I think that is telling you two, you know, sort of exactly opposite things.

FELDMAN: Without clear instructions, people can get stuck. And research shows that when that happens, people are more likely to just go with what they want.

PETERS: And in this case, it's been weeks of staying at home. It's been weeks of not seeing your family, not seeing your friends, not having the kind of social interactions that everybody likes to do.

FELDMAN: In other words, it's really hard to make the right choices in these situations. Peters says that's why it's so important in this pandemic for the messaging around what's safe to be clear and consistent. That's what Wilkinson-Ryan wanted back when she was dealing with her husband's concussion - clear rules. And now lots of people are facing dilemmas like this all on their own. But she says it's the government's job to give concrete guidance for specific situations, not broad categories like yellow or green. Otherwise, people end up interpreting the same rules differently. And that's where the judging comes in.

WILKINSON-RYAN: There's a little bit of shaming individuals who go and take advantage of these open places, but that's pretty confusing because if they're opening, why aren't you supposed to go to them?

FELDMAN: Wilkinson-Ryan wants to know how many times a week to go to the grocery store. She wants 6-foot circles in the grass at the park, the new rules for this new normal everyone keeps talking about. And she says we should demand those things from public officials instead of pointing the finger at each other.

For NPR News, I'm Nina Feldman in Philadelphia.

MCCAMMON: This story comes from NPR's partnership with WHYY and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.