Have AA Meetings Become Superspreader Events?

EXCLUSIVE by Christopher Dale for the Addiction/Recovery eBulletin

Alcoholics Anonymous is supposed to save lives, not risk them.

And that, in ten words, is why if I were a newcomer, I would not choose Alcoholics Anonymous as my program of recovery.

That verdict feels terrible – just terrible – coming off my fingertips. But it is no less true than the gratitude I hold for the program and the people in it.

Approaching my 10-year sober anniversary, I am living, breathing proof that the Steps and principles of AA can arrest alcoholism, restore former fall-down drunks to sanity and lead to a better, more useful existence than I ever thought imaginable – a life, per the Big Book, beyond my wildest dreams.

Over the past several months, I’ve written several pieces in this space exploring the inherent inferiority of the online meetings foist upon AA by the COVID-19 pandemic. I argued that we needed to get back into the rooms – back to down and dirty in-person sobriety as the founders intended. And in late spring, as vaccinations surged and COVID cases fell off, that’s exactly what started to happen.

And then… the Delta variant.

Delta’s rap sheet (almost) evokes nostalgia for 2020. Packing more than 1,000 times the viral load of “COVID classic,” Delta is so contagious it can be transmitted in mere seconds rather than several minutes. Its ascent has been astonishingly rapid: already, Delta comprises 93% of new COVID cases in the U.S.

Finally, the kicker: the Centers for Disease Control recently revealed that, due to its elevated viral loads, even vaccinated people can contract and spread the delta variant.

My friends, I’m here to invoke AA’s Responsibility Statement:

“I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of A.A. always to be there. And for that, I am responsible.”

Far too many meetings, both in my home state of New Jersey and beyond, are not practicing what they preach. We cannot uphold a Responsibility Statement while acting irresponsibly. We cannot claim collective sanity while acting insanely.

We cannot portray our newly reopened indoor AA meetings as havens of recovery… when they double as superspreader events.

For the good of both the program and its members, indoor AA meetings need to mask up, NOW. Here’s why.

How Very Un-AA-like

Few settings contain people more capable of adapting than the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. Per the intro to the AA Big Book’s “There is a Solution” chapter:We are average Americans. All sections of this country and many of its occupations are represented, as well as many political, economic, social, and reli­gious backgrounds. We are people who normally would not mix. But there exists among us a fellowship, a friendliness, and an understanding which is inde­scribably wonderful.

Once-desperate drunks from limitless backgrounds and alcoholic bottoms somehow conform around 12 Steps and a set of principles – respect, tolerance, helpfulness – that have made AA greater than the sum of its parts, and the most prolific recovery program in history.

Place all this in the context of where we are as a country – right here, right now. As the more contagious, likely more dangerous Delta variant rages, one in five new COVID cases are now breakthrough infections; that is, infections despite vaccination. Suddenly, hopes that we could simply vaccinate our way out of a pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Americans have proven wishful thinking.

Crucially, the fact that vaccinated people can now catch and spread COVID poses big problems for one huge subset of the population: parents of the approximately 50 million U.S. children under the vaccination-eligible age of 12. As a healthy, vaccinated 42-year-old, I no longer fear becoming deathly ill from COVID but, thanks to the Delta variant, must continue masking and socially distancing to prevent the possibility of passing COVID to my five-year-old.

The reason for continued indoor masking is, then, stunningly straightforward: lots of people have young children and, with a now-dominant variant capable of passing through the vaccinated to infect unvaccinated kids, masking in indoor public settings should be a no-brainer – especially for an organization like AA, which strives to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible. 

So consider my surprise when I walked into a recently reopened AA meeting and, in a room of 50 people, I was the only person wearing a mask.

First I felt embarrassed. Then I felt alarmed.

Then I felt angry.

And since then, dozens of meetings in my area have opened in ill-advised mask-optional formats.

So now, I just feel disappointed. And, as an AA member, ashamed.

It is profoundly disheartening that people who’ve seemingly adapted so proficiently in their lives – from hopeless alcoholics to sober, productive society members – can fail so completely, and often so unanimously, to adjust to evolving circumstances. It is all the more pathetic given that all adjusting requires are simple cloth coverings over the mouth and nose – annoying yet life-saving garments that, after all, we’ve only recently been able to collectively shed. 

But no. By all means, please go ahead and try to kill my kid because you “don’t want to go back” to masking. Remind me again how this program supposedly restores us to sanity?

How did we get here? How does an organization dedicated to the thoughtful, selfless aid of suffering alcoholics have so many thoughtless and selfish members?

How did we come to set such a poor example of responsible recovery – both for each other and, more importantly, for newcomers seeking refuge in our rooms? How did we get to the point where a newcomer’s very first impression of AA may be, at best, a collection of clueless future COVID cases and, at worst, a suicide cult thumbing their nose at science, the health of themselves and others be damned?

The (Orange) Elephant in the Rooms

There are two possible reasons for the maskless misadventures unfolding at far too many AA meetings. One is easily remedied; the other, in a twist of tragic irony, is a progressive, seemingly incurable mental malady.

First, the hopeful outlook. With Delta such a new occurrence, perhaps the protocols simply haven’t caught up with the facts on the ground yet. Only a few months ago, we were in a very different – and preferable – place. In May, the CDC delivered celebratory news more than a year in the making: vaccinated people could safely shed their masks, even indoors.

For a brief yet not insignificant period, then, we enjoyed a delectable slice of pre-2020 life. It couldn’t have been more delicious and, now, it’s understandably unpalatable – very, very unpalatable – to put the pie back in the fridge and the masks back on our faces.

Considering Delta’s newness, in this scenario enough of us will soon realize the need to re-mask indoors, vaccinated or not. That’s the best possible outcome at this point. But it isn’t, in my opinion, the likeliest.

That brings us to the second possible reason for AA being largely sans mask. It’s a reason that has permeated all facets of social and political life for more than half a decade. It’s a bloated, preening, angry, untruthful reason.

Its name is Donald Trump.

It is naïve to think that the most influential political figure in modern American history would be unable to impact a diverse, nationally-represented organization, even one as staunchly apolitical as Alcoholics Anonymous. AA is comprised of society itself and, simply put, a solid 40% of American society is so unflinchingly enthralled with the 45th President that, if he said 2+2=5, they’d stop believing their calculators (#FakeMath).

Trump’s trance has been made more powerful by a cadre of conservative media and legislators with concrete reasons – ratings, reelection, money, conservative causes – for sustaining a charlatan who emboldened white supremacists, embraced authoritarians and, during the worst of the COVID pandemic, declared the whole thing a hoax to bolster his reelection prospects.

Even at the admission of his own coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, Trump’s inability to place science over politics caused hundreds of thousands of avoidable COVID deaths. Instead, the president did what he does best – divide people – and turned a pandemic into a political bellwether.

Donald Trump turned infection prevention tactics like face masks into perhaps the stupidest culture war symbol in American history, using his unwaveringly loyal base like sacrificial lambs for his own political survival. Fortunately he failed. But unfortunately, his lies live on everywhere in our society where Red and Blue America must coexist. And that, of course, includes AA meetings.

It is well known that Alcoholics Anonymous is whiter and more male than society at large. Given how pristinely those demographics dovetail with Trump’s base, it’s safe to assume that AA has a higher percentage of Trump supporters than society at large.

Typically, personal politics are not a hindrance to recovery. However, that changes when an identifying characteristic of those politics is an aversion to basic facts. Formerly reasonable Republicans now reside in cable news bubbles and social media silos amounting to an alternate reality. And one of those “realities” is that COVID is at best overblown, and at worst a complete canard.

As far as AA goes, for over a year these dangerous delusions were safely hidden behind screens in Zoom meetings. Now, they’ve seemingly been carried – along with, assumedly, heaping helpings of COVID – into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. Those of us who pleaded for AA to reopen are now reminded to be careful what we wish for.

Trump supporters have, historically, been bafflingly blind to the lies they’ve been fed. From Charlottesville’s “good people of both sides” to the Big Lie that the 2020 Election was somehow stolen, his followers have defended him up to and including violently storming the seat of US government in January.

Now what, I ask, would lead one to believe they’re going to listen to reason when it comes to re-masking indoors? Especially in an organization where groups govern themselves, what AA has here is truly unprecedented: an intractable, mission-critical problem poisoned by the politics of its time.

Something must be done, and that something must be uniform.

Into Action

So what, exactly, can AA do about its missing mask problem?

First, let’s cover what won’t work: vaccine mandates. While arguably reasonable for public places like restaurants, bars and concert venues, requiring someone entering an AA meeting to show some semblance of a vaccination card clearly violates the organization’s commitment to anonymity.

But once this is realized, the only rationale action is a temporary centralized mandate in a purposefully decentralized organization. It’s not ideal but, with a contagious pandemic variant infecting Americans independent of vaccination status, it’s simply where we are.

That edict goes something like this: The General Service Office could announce that, in order to list an in-person AA meeting in a regional directory, that meeting must be mask mandatory. This does not need to be a permanent rule, but rather one with a reasonable expiration date – say, six months – that could be extended should the COVID landscape necessitate it.

Among other goals, such a measure would provide time for the FDA to approve vaccination for young children – a rollout that could begin as early as September or October. It would welcome parents of young children back into the rooms, exemplifying the organization’s commitment to inclusivity.

Even more crucially, it would save AA from parallel self-inflicted wounds. The first of these, of course, is COVID. Maskless indoor AA meetings are currently, and will continue to be, fertile ground for the Delta variant to infect new victims, vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.

The other is AA’s reputation with the public and, through it, potential new members. Continuing to let AA groups act so irresponsibly risks turning newcomers off to the program as a whole. Desperate drunks who would otherwise have joined our ranks may take one look at our callousness, decide we have no wisdom to espouse, and return to their barstools.

Above all, this outcome, the unwitting shunning of newcomers, is simply unacceptable and anathema to AA’s primary purpose. Should this come to pass, many who’ve been restored to sanity – comprehensive sanity, including empathy for newcomers and a healthy fear of contagion – may choose to tearfully disassociate ourselves from the Fellowship we love and cherish.