Stacy Column: Can we pass the marshmallow test?

Stacy Column: Can we pass the marshmallow test?

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

At long last, Alabama is seeing progress in our efforts to combat the coronavirus.

The state is now averaging 840 new cases a day, down from 1,851 a month ago. Hospitalizations are starting to level off, too. A total of 1,280 COVID-19 patients are currently hospitalized compared to 1,613 at our peak on August 6. A quick perusal of all the charts on the indispensable shows unmistakable progress in nearly every metric.

As someone who follows and reports on coronavirus data daily, it feels good to see such positive news. And even though we had a brutal month of July, we are fortunate that our spike in coronavirus cases came four months into the pandemic when hospitals were far more prepared and practiced to treat patients. Remember back in March and April when all the talk was about “flattening the curve” and avoiding an early transmission spike to give the health care industry time to gather the necessary resources, like ventilators and protective gear? That appears to have worked.

To be sure, we aren’t out of the woods yet. Both Gov. Kay Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris have repeatedly warned not to take the progress for granted and let our guard down, especially as we enter into the incredibly precarious time of schools starting back up. The next few weeks will tell us a lot about whether or not we can truly stay ahead of this virus.

So much coverage of the outbreak has tended to be gloomy and grim, especially where it intersects with politics, so I believe it is important to mark the good news. Yet, at the same time, Alabama’s progress seems fragile. The kind of thing that makes you knock on wood, cross your fingers, go outside turnaround three times and spit – whatever your superstition might be. It’s almost like we haven’t wanted to acknowledge the clearly positive trend for fear we might jinx it.

If we’re being honest, one key reason many of us want Alabama’s virus numbers to keep improving is the prospect of having college football this fall. Early on in the outbreak, I didn’t like the idea of dangling football as a carrot to pressure people to act right, partly because I’ve been pessimistic about it happening regardless of where the numbers sit in September. Yet, here we are a little over a month out of the SEC’s first games and the season seems more realistic than ever.

Which is why it was so distressing to see images stream over social media of young people in Tuscaloosa and Auburn partying like there’s no tomorrow with few masks or feet of distance between. It was enough to elicit tweets of disappointment from several football players and efforts to crack down on irresponsible behavior from city police.


Whether or not we see major transmission spikes on college campuses — and whether we actually get a college football season — won’t ultimately depend on government mandates and policing, though those are important. At the end of the day, it will come down to thousands of 18-22 year-old students deciding to act responsibly, or not. They must pass the marshmallow test.

Back in the 1970s, Stanford University researchers conducted a test that studied the ability of children to choose delayed reward over instant gratification. An adult would offer each child one marshmallow and a choice: eat the marshmallow right away or wait 15 minutes and get two marshmallows. When the adult left the room, a test of willpower began: be patient enough to double their reward or go right to munching on the marshmallow. Researchers followed each child as years passed and those who waited for their reward did better in school, had better social skills and lived healthier lives.

In many ways, the coronavirus pandemic has been one big, continuous marshmallow test that we adults haven’t always passed. However, even in our failure, we have learned what works in limiting the spread of the virus: wearing masks and avoiding large crowds. That is to say, the rules of the test have never been clearer, nor have the differing rewards. Now it is up to college students to decide whether they want the instant thrill of beers with the bros at Sky Bar and Gallettes or the delayed, but much more valuable reward of a college football season.

I get it. I was them once. Lord knows I had a great time. The joyful disregard for consequence at that age is unique and sublime. It’s also what makes me pessimistic about football actually happening.

Prove me wrong, college students. Mask up or we’re all missing out on that second marshmallow.