Should You Stay or Should You Go?

A simple decision tool for navigating COVID-19


stacy becker

3 years ago | 4 min read

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

COVID-19 rampages around the US and the world. The US death count has exceeded 300,000, a number unthinkable eight months ago. Pundits have begun to speculate on how many of those deaths were preventable. Right now, the more important question is: how many deaths can we still prevent?

It’s become clear that we cannot rely on our leaders for guidance, at least in the United States. The bone-headed move of allowing the Sturgis motorcycle rally in August which spread the virus far and wide. Or the super-spreader events in the White House. More difficult calls, such as reopening college campuses, spread the virus too —397,000 cases and counting.

Each and every one of us has a role in prevention. Yet decision-making is not so clear cut. So much is unknown and situations are complicated. Should I attend the motorcycle rally? My grandmother’s 90th birthday party? Happy hour? Return to college? Send my kids back to school?

What is most important is that we are intentional about our decisions. I have created a simple tool to help you do that.

The fundamental decision: importance versus safety

The bottom line of every decision is: how badly do I want or need to go versus how much risk to safety is involved.

Choose a decision you’re mulling over and look at the statements below. The statements recognize that safety is a two-way street: you risk being exposed to COVID-19 and you risk exposing others. For each, indicate your level of agreement, with a “high, medium or low” rating. No need to stew over the answers; your gut answer is fine.

You might have other questions that I’ve missed. Go ahead and add them.

A simple map of importance and safety

Now, eyeball your answers and consider how important and risky the event is overall. Plot them on the graph below. (Notice that both importance and safety diminish from the left corner.)

For example, I’ve plotted my grandmother’s 90th birthday party as an event of fairly high importance and moderate safety. It’s a special occasion and she is very dear to me. The party will be be a brief gathering of about twenty family members, held outside. Although my grandmother’s health is vulnerable, she has asked for this party.

How should we understand the result? Below is the same graph suggesting a guide to decision-making. Some decisions should be pretty easy: high safety and high importance (Go!) or low safety and low importance (Don’t Go!). My example above falls barely outside the “go” range.

What happens if the event falls in the middle area where a decision is less clear? You have a few options.

  • Is there anything you can do to make it more safe? Perhaps decide to stay only for a short while and wear a mask.
  • Is there anything among either your “importance” answers or “safety” answers that stands out as an especially high priority? You might plot just these answers and see how it changes where the event lands. For example, maybe I think my grandmother’s party is not such a good idea; I am concerned about her health. But the party is happening with or without me and she has asked me to be there. So I narrow the question set to “special occasion,” “people important to me,” “it’s important to others,” and “I don’t carry the virus.” I am willing to risk my own exposure to meet my grandmother’s wishes.
  • Can alternatives be created? Yes, Plan Bs, especially virtual gatherings, are getting tiresome. But the tension that arises in the “?” zone can also be the source of a great deal of joyful creativity.

Chances are, you already do a version of this sort of decision-making in your head. But with so many variables swimming around, it’s easy to get confused or frustrated. Using this decision-making aid helps make our priorities and intentions clear and may reveal options.

Also, our friends or neighbors may have different priorities based on their assessments of importance and safety. This tool can also be used to communicate with family or friends if you wish to discuss or understand the ‘why’ behind decisions.

The consequences of our choices

In preparing this post, I realized that there is a subset of people for whom this graph won’t work, namely essential workers, hospital workers, and nursing home patients and their families. These are cases of very low safety and very high importance, as shown below. The graph suggests they should not go, and yet they feel they must (often because their paycheck depends on it).

I point this out not because the graph is faulty, but what it implies about our wealthy American society. No one should have to make a choice about unsafe conditions or their family’s welfare. No hospital worker should have to work without personal protective equipment, or for shift after shift after shift because the emergency room is overrun with COVID patients who refused to wear a mask. No elderly person should have to die alone.

By making intentional decisions, you can keep yourself and your family safe. You will also contribute to minimizing the risk of those who don’t have the choice.


Notes: Graphs and table were created by the author; use if you like but please provide credit. If you’d like a deeper dive into decision-making under uncertainty, check out this video from the Human Systems Dynamics Institute.

And! If you’d like to learn the basics of complexity, and some simple but powerful tools for decision-making in complexity, drop me a line. I am offering a free intro training session.


Created by

stacy becker

I am a big-hearted pragmatist who looks at tough problems in new ways. After years of leadership in various sectors, I have turned to complexity theory to better address the tough issues of our world. Aha! There's a reason we get stuck! Now consulting and training. Website on its way...







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