Sacred Heart Academy faculty members hand out caps and gowns to...

Sacred Heart Academy faculty members hand out caps and gowns to students on May 15 during a drive-by event. State legislators have asked Gov. Cuomo to allow outdoor graduations in July. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang


On Long Island, as in much of the country, the killing of George Floyd and the cries for racial justice that followed have dominated our attention and shifted focus away from the coronavirus pandemic. But we're still dealing with COVID-19. What's more, we're facing critical moments on each of these challenges. When we understand how closely both are tied to other big issues like housing, education and environmental justice, it's clear we must continue to attack each problem with extraordinary vigor.

As the hot light is trained on the search for new laws and policies on policing in the endless pursuit of racial justice, we must also continue to do the quieter work of reopening from the region's virus-induced shutdown. We're in the early stages, and it’s apparent we’re not yet hitting the ground running, even as we get ready to move into phase 2 this week. That’s OK. The road ahead is still so uncertain that slow and easy is the right way back. Most New Yorkers, indeed most Americans, feel that way, too. The more diligently we play our part, the more likely this comeback goes well.

Millions of Americans who lost jobs, and battered governments at all levels face difficult financial situations. But when our region successfully emerges from this, and the economy rebounds as infections continue to drop, we must not fall for the idea that this crisis was overblown and hyped, that shutting down the economy was an overreaction. Nearly 110,000 Americans, including more than 24,000 New Yorkers, have died in the past three months. Ignoring that would dishonor them and the heroic efforts of doctors, nurses and first responders to try to save them.

Our memories can’t be so short that we forget the teeming intensive care units, the daily four-digit death toll, the bodies piled in morgues and refrigerated trucks, and the searing heartbreak felt by so many families who suddenly lost loved ones. We cannot do to them what we have done with the many victims of racial violence who preceded George Floyd, and ignore what happened as it recedes in the rearview mirror. 

There will be times going forward from this virus, as there have been all along, when the way is not clear. Navigating shifting, incomplete and sometimes contradictory information can be exasperating. That’s normal in a crisis and especially true in a crisis like this, where there still is so much to learn about COVID-19.

From the start we’ve received mixed messages on whether to wear masks, the accuracy of antibody tests, the behavior of the virus and the ways it can be transmitted, the effectiveness of various medicines, the rates of infection, and the death toll itself. Some regulations have changed, some advice has morphed. That’s not ideal, but it's the process. Science doesn’t arrive at the whole truth quickly. Fully unlocking the mysteries of this virus and developing a vaccine will take time. Science is still our best bet to emerge from this, as it has been throughout human history. Despite the understandable frustration some of us feel, we need to trust that and adjust as new information arises.

Recent studies, for example, show that the virus can linger in the air for hours, and that six feet might not be enough distance to keep between us. Such revelations are reason not to lash out and reject fundamental findings, but to remain calm and adapt our behaviors. Respect the business owners allowed to deny entry to customers without masks. Resist the temptation to emulate what some people in other parts of the country are doing, like crowding into bars without masks.

While many in our region worry more about opening up too quickly than reopening too slowly, it's also clear that plenty of us are aching for small doses of normalcy, stepstones that can be used to measure progress. There are possibilities.

One proposal from state legislators asks Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to allow outdoor high school graduations in July. He's given the OK on drive-in and drive-through ceremonies but outdoor ones also can be done safely. It's a matter of math. Keep students an appropriate distance apart on a football field and do the same with crowds limited to parents in stands. We've had so many rituals sadly but necessarily stripped away. Bringing back a powerful emotional touchstone for students and families like a high school graduation would do wonders for many psyches, just like the newly accelerated timetable for restaurants to offer outdoor dining will nourish the souls of diners.

As we frequent the curbsides of our favorite small businesses, encounter the sights and sounds of construction sites rumbling to life, and dip a toe once more in our precious sand and surf, let's remember that the story of our recovery from the virus — like the story of our quest for racial justice — has many threads that must be woven together properly for the story to end well.

So let’s continue to be smart. Let’s remember not to be so self-centered that we forget that our behaviors can affect the health of others. Whether we're moving gingerly back into public spaces or marching lustily in the streets, let’s take with us a basic respect for our fellow humans. Then we can reach the goals we're seeking.

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