How To Plague: Advice On Elevators, Voting, And Hogging Bandwidth

Hi, I’m Katie Notopoulos, a tech reporter here at BuzzFeed News, and I have no actual expertise in epidemiology, but I sure do enjoy telling people how to live their lives. Which means I’m the perfect person to tell you How to Plague. This is BuzzFeed News’ advice column for these incredibly confusing times. The coronavirus pandemic is changing rapidly, with new information coming out seemingly by the hour. I’ll try to help with your queries about social distancing etiquette and ethical dilemmas large and small, and call up some actual experts to weigh in when needed.

Sign up with our text-messaging service to send me your coronavirus questions and chat with BuzzFeed News editors. You can stop anytime.

I live in New York City and wonder if it is OK to ask those people with masks on if they are ill before I get on my building’s elevator? We have 25 floors of approximately 10-12 apartments on each floor. Since some people are wearing masks for protection even if they aren’t sick, it is obviously hard to tell if someone is ill or not. For self-preservation, I would prefer not to get on an elevator with someone who has COVID-19 if possible. Hoping I am not a monster for asking, but it has been bothering me.

—Suz-anna, New York

I have good news for you. You are perfectly welcome to NOT get on the elevator with someone wearing a mask. In fact, don’t get on the elevator with anyone, unless your elevator is so massive that you can be 6 feet apart. Wait for the next empty elevator.

Obviously, you don’t want to seem like the asshole neighbor, but I’m sure they’ll understand. When there’s anyone else in the elevator (or waiting in line for it), just say, “Oops! Gotta do my social distancing. I’ll catch the next one. Be well!” Hopefully, you and your neighbors are not leaving the building too often, so elevator traffic should be lighter than usual.

I have a compromised immune system and live alone. I’m at high risk if I contract COVID-19 and I live in Wisconsin. I want to vote! But to use an absentee ballot in my state, I HAVE to have it witnessed. So here’s my dilemma:

Do I take public transit (thus endangering others and violating a shelter-in-place order) or a ride share to reach the polls, or do I ask someone else to witness my absentee ballot as required by the state, or in the middle of a huge crisis do I just pretend who my elected officials are don’t matter and… choose not to vote?
–Amber, Wisconsin

I asked Reid Magney, the public information officer for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, for advice. He said that yes, you will still need a witness, but that person doesn’t have to enter your home.

“Overall, we’re telling people to be creative,” Magney said. “For example, can they have a witness look through their window, then slide the envelope under the door or through the mail slot? Can they video-chat? Someone today suggested using the drive-up teller at your bank if it’s open. I also thought about witnesses with cars pulling up next to each other in a parking lot or driveway and witnessing through the windows.”

Zoom to the rescue again! Call up a friend or neighbor over Zoom or FaceTime, have them witness you signing it over video chat, then leave the ballot on your doorstep (or theirs) or send it to them through the mail to mail back to you. They can sign it and you can pick it up afterward — no touching.

Both you and your witness should wash hands before and after touching the ballot. A recent study showed that the coronavirus can live on cardboard for 24 hours, so if you want to be super-super safe, leave a day in between handing it back and forth.

Is it safe for me to go on a hike as long as I keep my distance from other people and don’t touch anything?

Yes, go hike if you can maintain social distancing. Enjoy it. Pay attention to your state rules regarding parking lot closures, though (here are California’s, for example).

I have an enormous amount of DVD rips of personal videos and photos across the years just eating up space on my laptop (about 45 gbs, already on an external hard drive), and I’ve been meaning to back them up to the cloud. In light of services dropping video quality to ease congested networks, would backing up my multi-gigabyte trash pile to the cloud be an ethical thing to do?
—Pranav Dixit (BuzzFeed News tech reporter), Delhi, India

I have spent many hours thinking about the best way to back up old photos and digital debris. There never seems to be one obvious and simple solution (if anyone replies to this “Google Photos,” so help me god, I will dump a vat of coronavirus juice in your car’s gas tank). The thought that my photos exist in a variety of places — some on a physical drive, some on iCloud, some in web services like Flickr or Instagram — fills me with a low level of dread and anxiety. So I respect your need to self-care during this stressful time by finding efficient and organized cloud storage solutions.

But the ethical question is out of my range. Yes, some web services like YouTube are lowering their bit rate (lowering video quality to keep up with increased demand). So I asked Paul Ford, cofounder of the tech firm Postlight and sometimes journalist who has written about the people who keep the lights on on the internet in times of super-heavy user load — like the engineers for Paper magazine when Kim Kardashian West “broke” the internet (she did not actually break their site, thanks to the engineers’ hard work).

“In real terms, it’s just NBD. Your upload speed is going to limit how much damage you can do,” said Ford. “If you wanted to be super-maximum ethical to the point of paranoia, then pick a cloud service with a hosting provider in the same country (i.e., nice open-bandwidth pipes) and just run this over a few nights, after the distance learners have gone to bed. But ultimately this is just a tiny pile of garbage that it’s hard to even work up to a good trolley problem about it. It’s a good thing to think about but just not the real problem.”

Thanks, Mr. Ford, but you forget that there are no small problems, only small solutions, and I am here to find solutions of all sizes. If you have them, please email me at katie@buzzfeed.com, DM me on Twitter or Instagram (@katienotopoulos), or subscribe to our text message newsletter, where you can text me directly.

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