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iPhone 12 Pro Max, Mini launch today: Don't let it be a COVID-19 superspreader event

Commentary: The second wave of new iPhone 12 devices are launching. But waiting in the usual hyped-up Apple store line isn't worth the risk.

Just skip the hoopla and order online. 
Sarah Tew/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

Every fall, Apple fans dependably line up at marquee stores like Manhattan's famed Apple Fifth Avenue Cube, spending days in folding chairs for a chance to be one of the first to get their hands on a new iPhone. But with the launch of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro last month, and the iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max today, the situation is radically different thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. That throws into question whether people should show up at Apple stores at all. 

If there's any confusion on this, let me clear it up for you: Stay away.

Let me also be clear: I'm not advocating you skip out on buying an iPhone. Apple has spent years building up its online presence and working with its carrier partners to allow you to activate wireless service online, and now you can chat or call a retail specialist, removing the need for people to physically show up at stores aside from pickups (You should call your local Apple store to see what options it offers). For the most part, you haven't needed to line up for a long time, and Apple is offering even more options this year.

"We're offering new ways for our customers to get to know all of our products before they buy, so they can be sure to get the product that's right for them," Diedre O'Brien, head of Apple's retail business, said in a release issued in October ahead of the initial launch.

What's left has been a mix of hardcore Apple fans who want the glory and publicity of being first in line -- knowing the media will dependably be there to interview them -- tourists waiting in line to snag the phone because their home country won't have it for a few weeks and enterprising, cash-carrying buyers looking to quickly flip the devices on the secondary market. 

I've spent years covering these product launches, and I've grown to appreciate the camaraderie and fun that comes from spending hours or even days with other fanboys eagerly awaiting the latest and greatest from Apple. 

But these lines are just a showy demonstration of the loyalty of Apple's fanbase and the kind of draw products like a new iPhone can still have -- even if they don't really offer any real insight into what broader demand for these products actually looks like. So it's important to say this again: No amount of geeking out is worth the risk that comes from either catching or spreading a deadly and highly contagious airborne virus -- even if you're wearing a face mask. In an era when social distancing and masks are literally the difference between life and death, the typical lines at Apple stores shouldn't exist. 

It's doubly important now, as the US continues to shatter the record for positive infections on a daily basis. On Thursday, the US reported more than 160,000 new coronavirus cases -- the first day over 150,000. The US alone accounts for more than 242,400 of the 1.3 million deaths from COVID-19, with 10.6 million Americans testing positive for the virus.

I say this knowing that there will inevitably be lines forming at Apple stores, many of which are open around the world. The Cube, for instance, will be open at 8 a.m. ET on Friday for the new phones. Apple will enforce strict social distancing protocols, which means those lines that used to span the block will extend even further as people stay at least six feet away from each other. 

Apple in March closed all of its stores outside of China and extended the closure of US stores as the spread of coronavirus was just beginning to climb. In May, Apple reopened a number of stores but instituted temperature checks and health screens for customers. Since then, Apple has had to shut down some stores and reopen them in different areas based on the rate of infections.

Of the 510 Apple stores around the world, 464 are open, according to a tally taken by 9to5Mac. That number is down by nearly 20 since the iPhone 12 launched, underscoring the rise in coronavirus infections. 

Needless to say, it's not advisable to visit a carrier partner store either.  

You could argue that these lines are outdoors and the stores will surely limit the number of customers inside. Apple has shown itself to be conscientious of the virus, as evidenced by the credit reel that explains how it put together its presentations for its developer conference in June and then the iPad and iPhone events in September and October. But it's easy to see some of that discipline breaking down as the lines stretch further and further back. 

The company will offer people further back in the line a reservation ticket to come back later and offer pick-up kiosks as it shakes things up. The company has expanded the number of express kiosks where you can quickly pick up products too. 

But that likely won't be enough if the expected demand is to be believed. Analysts predict that the iPhone 12 series will be a top seller this holiday, instantly making Apple the No. 2 5G player behind Huawei. CNET reviewer Patrick Holland last month called the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro among "the highest rated phones of all time." He called the Mini a "one-handed phone user's dream."

Mix that kind of excitement with people already dealing with pandemic fatigue over the lockdown rules and it's a recipe for many potentially forgoing the safety measures in place. 

This isn't the time to be taking a step back on our containment efforts. While some countries have effectively dealt with the coronavirus, they're in the minority. Cases in the US, among other countries, are spiking back up as we deal with the coming of yet another wave.  Hundreds of people, of all ages, are still dying from the virus in the US every day. And that doesn't even take into account that we're at the start of the flu season, another virus that takes lives.

It's telling that Apple won't be sending any public relations staffers to its flagship stores -- something it usually does to help coordinate media coverage during these splashy launches. CEO Tim Cook has showed up to stores in the past, but it would be surprising if he made an appearance this year. 

Let's hope consumers, especially those hardcore fans, take advantage of those options and place their orders at home. Because nothing -- not even the new iPhone 12 -- is worth dragging out our terrible coronavirus lockdown situation even longer.