Contact tracing or community control?: Social media reactions to guidelines in Phase One of the reopening of New Orleans

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Author: Asad El Malik, PhD candidate in Intercultural Studies (Columbia International University – USA). You can contact him at asadelmalik@gmail.com

Field site: In phase one of reopening in New Orleans Louisiana, United States.

Photo courtesy of NOLA.com

New Orleans, once an epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, is now open for business…sort of. Although the intoxicating corridors and drunken debauchery of Bourbon Street have not yet returned, many businesses in New Orleans have opened with strict guidelines, including social distancing and contact tracing measures.

Phase 1: safer at home

On Monday, May 11th, New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell announced the city would enter Phase 1 of the reopening process. This first phase of reopening eases restrictions on the city’s stay-at-home order. However, in this phase, it is still recommended to stay at home except for essential needs and permitted activities. Seniors and people with medical conditions are encouraged to continue to stay at home. Also, in this phase, individuals are encouraged to wear masks in public, practice social distancing, and stay home if they feel sick.

For businesses that are allowed to reopen, this phase comes with added restrictions including operating at 25% capacity. These businesses include shopping malls and retail stores, beauty salons, barber shops, food service establishments, office buildings, houses of worship, and fitness centers. Along with reduced capacity, some businesses, mainly restaurants, must also keep a record of the name and contact information of individual customers. This can be done by the customer making a reservation or presenting their name and phone number when they arrive at the restaurant.

Undoubtedly, these restrictions have been met with both praise and criticism. Some businesses have argued that the reduced capacity will make it impossible to be profitable. Others see the restrictions as minor inconveniences in the interest of public health.

As text of the restrictions can be seen here:

Contact tracing

Most of the contention around the new restrictions surrounds contact tracing and the measures used to track individuals. In a city that prides itself on having an extremely liberal interpretation of civil liberties and individual freedoms, I wanted to examine how New Orleanians are responding to contact tracing measures.


In order to gain this understanding, I read over 1400 comments posted to news articles about contact tracing on NOLA.com‘s Facebook page and examined the amount of support each comment received in the form of Facebook reactions. NOLA.com is the digital branch of the city’s oldest and most famous newspaper the Times-Picayune/The Advocate. I will review some of the comments here.

The first article entitled Latoya Cantrell: business owners to keep customer logs under new normal amid coronavirus, had over 800 comments. Many of the commenters expressed dislike and distrust with the idea of being logged each time they visit a business. One commenter,  stated, “Oh hell no. This is wrong on so many levels.  They have no right to demand anyone’s comings or going’s be logged.  We cannot give up every last freedom over this virus, especially when other cities are doing no such thing.” This comment had a total of 48 Facebook reactions, with 42 of those being “likes”, 3 being “hearts” and 3 were “laugh out louds”.

“Stop spending your hard-earned money in NOLA, the city doesn’t deserve it anymore. Business owners in NOLA, there’s plenty of close populated locations just outside of Orleans parish, where the officials in charge will treat you better.”

This comment received 71 “likes”, 7 “hearts”, 5 “laugh out louds”, and 1 “wow face”.

While the majority of the comments expressed disapproval, there were others that supported the mayor’s decision on contact tracing. These comments appeared to have strong support from others based on Facebook reactions.  One commenter added,

“I love how people think this is some scheme that she just made up and is only happening in Nola. Contact tracing is being done across the globe and is fairly normal epidemic procedure.”

This comment received 127 reactions including, 102 “likes”, 13 “laugh out loud faces”, and 10 “hearts”.

“Let me understand. It’s an evil scheme to obtain your contact information so the business can contact you if they find out that someone who went into their store later tested positive for covid? And since you were also at the location, could’ve been exposed through viral shedding, you’d likely be asked to self quarantine for x number days, to mitigate the otherwise exponential spread?”

This comment received 50 reactions, 45 of which were “likes”, 4 were “hearts” and 1 “wow face”.

In a second article entitled How do businesses feel about New Orleans’  customer log rule? Some are calling it a ‘huge burden’many commenters expressed similar sentiments as those expressed by commenters in the previous article. This article received 634 comments.

One commenter stated,

“Not necessary. They have another agenda for that. It’s not your health. No time in history was this needed. I will not give my information. This is still a free America. Unless the mayor has anything to do with it it won’t be. I so hope businesses don’t do this. She wants your small business to fail. It’s in the plan.”

This comment received 58 reactions of which 50 were “likes”, 5 “laugh-out-loud faces” and 1 “heart”.

Another commenter wrote,

“These are the same people who think a person shouldn’t be required to show their I.D. when voting.” This comment received 75 reactions including 65 “likes”, 8 “laugh-out-loud faces”, and 2 “hearts”.

“It would help if there was a breakout and you needed to trace where they were and who they had contact with. Could drastically save lives”.

This comment received 26 reactions including 22 “likes” and 4 “laugh out loud faces”.

Here are a few other examples:

Fallout and collateral concerns

The New Orleans business community offered push back against the mayor of New Orleans, expressing both logistical and privacy concerns with keeping customer logs. Nola.com even printed a critique of the mayor’s plan stating, “it just isn’t practical”.

One New Orleans businessman agreed that the plan was not well-thought-out but added, “I am equally disappointed that a number of business leaders jumped on it so fast without offering suggestions.”

The pushback caused the mayor to retreat on her initial proposal of all businesses keeping a customer log and, she stated she would follow the governor’s recommendations. However, the governor’s recommendations included restaurants keeping a log of all customers for at least 21 days.

Republican legislators across the state criticized contact tracing and expressed the concerns of their constituency. However, in order for the state to receive federal funds from Congress, it must submit plans for testing and tracing.

At a state Congressional hearing, Republican Raymond Crews stated,

“A lot of people are very reluctant to embrace the idea of contact tracing. We don’t know the extent of it. We don’t even know if there will be repercussions for people who choose not to answer the questions or isolate. There are no answers to my questions, so I’m very reluctant to embrace any idea for financing this stuff if we don’t even know what the plan is.”

There’s an app for that

On May 11th, Tulane University hosted a webinar entitled “Artificial Intelligence and Pandemic Tracing Technology: Public Health and Human Values.   In the webinar Kristin Johnson, professor of law and associate dean for faculty research at Tulane Law School, discusses how artificial technology, in particular phone apps, can be used in combination with other contact tracing methods and the legal and social implications that could arise.

However, in recent days the post below has been copied and shared numerous times on Facebook.

Analysis

There is strong apprehension to any form of contact tracing including customer logs. This apprehension can be rooted in a number of factors. First, New Orleans is a city that prides itself on individual liberties. The French influence of laissez-faire has created a citizenry that values freedom, personal expression, and liberty. It is the only southern city where alcohol is available twenty-four hours a day and 7 days a week. It is the city of naked bike rides and the uninhibited nature of Mardi Gras. Many New Orleanians will reject any policy or proposal that could possibly limit their liberty, even if it’s just tracking their free movements.

The second source of the apprehension is a distrust of the government. Many commenters stated that contact tracing encroaches on their citizen rights and gives the government more access to their private lives. They don’t want “Big Brother” to be able to track their whereabouts. However, other commentators noted that contact tracing is for the greater good of every citizen and is a small price to pay for improved public health.

Finally, much of the push back came from one side of the political aisle. New Orleans is a Democratic city surrounded by Republican suburbs. It is also a Democratic city in a deeply Republican state. Many Republicans appear to be playing to their base and participating in partisan politics against a Democratic governor and mayor.