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Opinion Governors need more than hopes and dreams to reopen states

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis puts on a face mask after a coronavirus briefing last week. (David Zalubowski/AP)

The daily increase in reported U.S. coronavirus cases — now approaching 1 million all told, with more than 54,000 fatalities — has not begun to fall, but some states’ governors are already trying to reopen businesses and relax restrictions. In making this life-or-death decision, these governors are running ahead of the science and just hoping for the best.

On “Fox News Sunday,” Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) defended his new plan to reopen the state, beginning with personal care businesses such as salons and expanding soon to restaurants and sports venues. In making his case, Stitt leaned heavily on the fact that covid-19 hospitalizations in the state peaked on March 30. But he left out that on Tuesday the state’s health department reported the largest one-day total of cases since early April. “Even without widespread testing,” the president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association told the Oklahoman newspaper last week, “Oklahoma has seen an ongoing growth in the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the past week alone” — contrary to White House guidelines for reopening. When host Chris Wallace showed Stitt that quote, though, the governor replied, “I don’t know exactly who that is” — an incredible dismissal.

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Over on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) had a similarly rocky time defending his “safer at home” order, which like Stitt’s allows certain categories of businesses to reopen. Host Jake Tapper began the interview by noting that Thursday and Friday saw the two highest new case numbers in Colorado since the pandemic started, which makes lifting the stay-at-home order particularly strange. Polis countered that those numbers reflected previous tests that had just been added to the count, but even if that’s the case, it suggests that testing and tracking in the state are just catching up to the real number of cases — hardly an ideal place to be when relaxing restrictions.

Polis also admitted that “we’re all worried about a potential for a second spike” in cases as early as the summer. But when questioned whether a spike in cases would lead to reissuing the stay-at-home order, Polis weirdly hemmed and hawed about looking at data, rather than commit to a seemingly obvious public health safeguard.

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To be sure, Stitt and Polis aren’t acting as recklessly as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R). Georgia’s death toll from the virus continues to rise steadily, and five of the 20 counties in the nation with most covid-19 deaths per capita are in the southwestern part of the state. Yet on Friday, Kemp barreled ahead with plans to reopen the state, two months ahead of when experts’ models suggest. Even President Trump, who suggested investigating whether injecting cleaning agents could help treat fight covid-19, is smart enough to realize the idiocy of Kemp’s policies: “I wasn’t happy with Brian Kemp. I wasn’t at all happy,” he said Thursday.

The importance of these governors’ decisions cannot be overstated. As Tapper said to Polis, “this might be the most important crisis that you ever have to face as a public official. Are you worried that you’re making a decision that could theoretically cost your constituents their lives?” Polis could only offer a platitude: “We have to make the best informed decisions, based on data and science, with the information we have.” This pandemic is a terrible test for governors; those rushing to reopen are setting themselves up for failure, with the price paid by their constituents.

Read more:

Chris Christie: Five actions we need to take to restore the American way of life

Bill Gates: Here are the innovations we need to reopen the economy

Michael S. Saag: There’s a better way to reopen society, and it’s no secret

Catherine Rampell: Trump has almost nothing to lose. That’s why he wants to reopen the economy.

Eugene Robinson: President Trump can’t reopen the country. Only we can do that.