High-Rises, Staircases, and Social Distancing: TJ in Informal Policy Statements

David B. Wexler

We’re all now in lockdown. I’ve been spending my time cooped up in my San Juan, Puerto Rico apartment, gladly doing my share to reduce the spread of the Coved19 virus and trying to protect myself from the same. I’m fortunate to be able to give my classes online, and I’ve been adjusting better than I expected to a stay-at home daily life.

Right before the outbreak, I was trying to exercise by walking in my neighborhood and, with good intentions,  I  even joined  a local hotel gym. And then everything was shut down, hotel gym closed, beach closed, and residents told to stay inside except for pharmacy, medical appointments, and grocery shopping.

Without exercise opportunities, I started (gradually) walking up and down the stairs from my 20th floor apartment. It got easier and I’m now doing it twice a day.

Recently, I’ve noticed that I have company on the staircase. Some are perhaps exercising as I am, and others are,  for various reasons, avoiding use of the elevator. They fear pushing the button; they fear violating social distance if they are not alone; they even worry that a prior user may have sneezed in that confined space.

In any event, I’m now suddenly concerned about social distancing on the staircase, and what to do about it. I’m thinking something should, with the administration’s green light,  be posted outside the principal staircase entrances.

And, being a TJ-er through and through, I started thinking about TJ and policy, a specialty—especially in the health area– of Prof. Amy Campbell. Amy was a co-editor (with Prof Kathy Cerminara) of a special TJ issue ,”Therapeutic Jurisprudence: Today and Tomorrow,” of volume 63 of the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry.  In that issue both David Yamada and Amy Campbell had excellent and important pieces relating to TJ and policy. David’s dealt mostly with the legislative process—a matter rarely discussed to date in TJ—and Amy had a pure policy perspective( A case study for applying therapeutic jurisprudence to policymaking: Assembling a policy toolbox to achieve a trauma-informed early care and learning system: 63 Intl J of Law & Psychiatry 45, 2019).

Amy’s work—here and in earlier papers—delves into many ways the TJ framework can inform policy-making. In her latest paper, the part that caught my attention was her reference to “therapeutic design and “therapeutic application”, a framework already familiar in TJ work when speaking of the law and its application.

In my first take of a proposed policy suggestion, I got too bogged down on details—the therapeutic design of the suggested policy was too complicated and nerdy: thus, to promote social distance, if two persons encounter each other in the same area, and if both are going in the same direction, the first person should go to the nearest floor and exit for a moment, allowing the other to pass.  But if they are going in opposite directions, the person going down should back up to the nearest exit for a moment, allowing the other person to ascend.   Blah, blah, blah. I hate it. No one would even read it through, let alone try to understand and follow it.      We need to remember this statement is to be read by residents, not lawyers and judges.

The revised statement is simpler and more straightforward: With the virus, many are now taking the stairs—for exercise and, for some, to avoid the elevators, which may not allow for 6 foot social distancing. Now, we need to facilitate social distancing on the stairs. Thus , if two people find themselves about to pass on the stairs, one should volunteer to momentarily exit to the nearest floor to allow the other to pass.

That therapeutic design seems sufficient.  And what about the therapeutic application of the policy? Again, the ones applying the policy are in this case the residents themselves. What I have been doing—even without a policy in place—is this:  When I see another person approaching, I put up a hand and say, “Excuse me. Please wait a second. To keep the distance, I’m going to exit for a moment and allow you to pass.” It’s easy.

As I just noted, this” excuse me, please wait  a second while I exit and give you distance to pass” can be used without any written and posted policy statement. But the statement would help: it underscores the need for social distancing on the stairs, and it suggests the appropriateness of one resident volunteering to exit momentarily.

Distancing has importance in other high-rise situations as well. I know of someone in New York City who has some suggestions for social distancing in a shared laundry room, and it would be interesting to see the suggestions and how relevant they might be in general.

 I think this  area of TJ thinking about simple, informal, policy statements can be an interesting and important new dimension of TJ work(and, as my own two draft experience reveals, a good lesson in legal writing as well).

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