The Design Flaw in PA’s COVID-19 Reopening Plan

Our government is terrible at naming things.

The latest example comes in the form of the Pennsylvania Coronavirus Reopening Plan. In case you’ve not heard, there are three phases for re-opening: Red, Yellow, and Green. Here in Allegheny County, we’re going Green tomorrow. 

Here’s why I think we have a problem. (No, it’s not the obvious reason.)

Red Phase

Let’s talk about the Red Phase first. Most people in the U.S. (and beyond), interpret red as a warning of a very bad thing. When red lights start flashing, it’s very clear that something is wrong and that extreme caution is needed. 

Red traffic lights mean stop—because it is dangerous to enter the intersection. Red text is a warning. Red lights on equipment mean immediate attention is required. 

Here are the restrictions that were in place in the Red Phase of the Reopening Plan:

Red Phase
Work & Congregate Setting Restrictions
  • Life Sustaining Businesses Only
  • Congregate Care and Prison Restrictions in Place
  • Schools (for in-person instruction) and Most Child Care Facilities Closed
Social Restrictions
  • Stay at Home Orders in Place
  • Large Gatherings Prohibited
  • Restaurants and Bars Limited to Carry-Out and Delivery Only
  • Only Travel for Life-Sustaining Purposes Encouraged

As a Cognitive Psychologist, my expertise is in Human Information Processing—knowing whether people are going to correctly interpret and use the information they are presented with. I do believe that the general public (or at least those who are inclined to believe that this pandemic is a serious threat) will correctly interpret the Red Phase as being a very dangerous time to be out and about because infection rates are high and rising. So, using red for the most restrictive phase works well. 

Yellow Phase

The next step toward reopening was the Yellow Phase. 

In the U.S., yellow is interpreted to mean take caution. It’s a warning color, but one that is understood to be less serious than red. It generally means that you need to be alert because things could potentially go badly. 

Yellow traffic lights mean to slow down. Yellow warning lights on equipment mean that a problem is developing that needs attention relatively soon. Yellow text is cautionary. 

Here’s what the governor’s plan says about the Yellow Phase:

Yellow Phase
Work & Congregate Setting Restrictions
  • Telework Must Continue Where Feasible
  • Businesses with In-Person Operations Must Follow Business and Building Safety Orders [up to 50% occupancy]
  • Child Care May Open Complying with Guidance
  • Congregate Care and Prison Restrictions in Place
  • Schools Remain Closed for In-Person Instruction
Social Restrictions
  • Stay at Home Order Lifted for Aggressive Mitigation
  • Large Gatherings of More Than 25 Prohibited
  • In-Person Retail Allowable, Curbside and Delivery Preferable
  • Indoor Recreation, Health and Wellness Facilities and Personal Care Services and all Entertainment Remain Closed
  • Restaurants and Bars May Open Outdoor Dining, in Addition to Carry-Out and Delivery

Again, I believe that most people will correctly interpret that they still need to be cautious in the Yellow Phase. So, yellow as a step down from red as a reopening phase works. 

Green Phase

The final phase of reopening is the Green Phase. Here’s where I have heartburn. 

In the U.S., green is interpreted to mean that everything is A-Okay

Green traffic lights mean you can keep going. Green walk signals mean it is safe to cross the intersection. Green equipment lights mean that something is operating under normal conditions. Safe. Normal. 

But that is NOT what the Green Phase of reopening means. The Governor’s plan still has a lot of restrictions in the Green Phase:

Green Phase
Work & Congregate Setting Restrictions
  • Continued Telework Strongly Encouraged
  • Businesses with In-Person Operations Must Follow Updated Business and Building Safety Requirements
  • All Businesses Operating at 50% Occupancy in the Yellow Phase May Increase to 75% Occupancy
  • Child Care May Open Complying with Guidance
  • Congregate Care Restrictions in Place
  • Prison and Hospital Restrictions Determined by Individual Facilities
  • Schools Subject to CDC and Commonwealth Guidance
Social Restrictions
  • Large Gatherings of More Than 250 Prohibited
  • Restaurants and Bars Open at 50% Occupancy
  • Personal Care Services Open at 50% Occupancy and by Appointment Only
  • Indoor Recreation, Health and Wellness Facilities, and Personal Care Services Open at 50% Occupancy with Appointments Strongly Encouraged
  • All Entertainment open at 50% Occupancy
  • Construction Activity May Return to Full Capacity with Continued Implementation of Protocols

Why? Because in green, the virus is still present; you could still come into contact with it and become infected. In other words, you still need to be cautious.

But that’s not what people are going to think green means if they’ve not listened closely to the news or read the plan, and realistically—how many members of the general public will do that?

People will incorrectly—through no fault of their own—interpret green as meaning everything is back to normal and that coronavirus and COVID-19 are no longer a threat. 

We are going to see people throwing caution to the wind and going back to their normal, pre-pandemic lives… because we are green now. And green means go, right?

This is a terrible label and because of it (and because of the people who think this is all just an overblown hoax), we may lose ground against the virus and more lives will be lost. 

Labels matter

Choosing poor labels can have serious and, in this case, dire consequences. Understanding your audience, your users, and how they will interpret the information that you provide has to be a top priority, no matter what field you are in or what you are trying to convey.

 If colors were truly desired, I’d have used Red, Orange, and Yellow. Or I’d have gone with something like Warning, Caution, and Advisory Phases. Even 3 …2 …1 would have been better than what we have.