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Opinion The politics and price of premature opening

A J. Crew store in New York on May 2. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
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President Trump and sycophantic Republican governors are in a frenzy: They want to reopen businesses and restart the economy. The problem is the voters, the customers and the workers don’t want to. Moreover, the results of reopening are likely to be disastrous, thereby increasing Republicans’ political collapse. (And when the incumbent Republican senator in Montana is down by seven and in Iowa is statistically tied, make no mistake. Republicans are imploding.)

Let’s start with the politics of reopening. Everyone wants to get back to shopping, going to movies and playing sports, right? Hardly. The Washington Post/University of Maryland poll shows that “67 percent say they would be uncomfortable shopping at a retail clothing store, and 78 percent would be uncomfortable eating at a sit-down restaurant.” It does not matter whether people are in states with strict or loose restrictions; the anxiety is palpable. Movie theaters? A stunning 82 percent wouldn’t be comfortable, more than who oppose opening gyms (78 percent), sit-down restaurants (74 percent), nail salons (74 percent), gun stores (70 percent), hair salons and barbers (69 percent) and clothing stores (66 percent). Golf courses do the best, but still, 59 percent would not favor their opening.

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This is the reverse “Field of Dreams” situation: Open the stores, but the public may not come. Workers may or may not return. Hence, whatever boost one gets may be muted. Republicans may not get much credit for reopening establishments that the public thinks are unsafe, nor will Republicans get the economic surge they think is necessary to keep the economy and their reelection prospects afloat.

And even if the vast number of Americans do not go to reopened businesses, even a small number who relax social distancing can reignite a surge of new cases. Andy Slavitt, former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for then-President Barack Obama, explains in a Medium post that the results of premature reopening will not be felt until June:

The 30 days will be blissful because people won’t pay the price for May’s experiment until June. But if people believe we are opening during a time when the curve is flat, they are wrong.
If you get infected today, at a minimum you’ll likely experience 5 infectious days without symptoms, and 28 infectious days without symptoms for those who never show them. Without tests or contact tracing, you can infect many people before you know it, (if you ever know it).

So, yes, there could be some economic revival, although “consumer spending, hiring, opening small businesses, investing in equipment — the things that power our economy — won’t happen just because Trump or governors want them to,” Slavitt writes. The trade-off for that minimal economic improvement is that we are likely to get a surge in deaths in June.

By trying to reassign seats in the White House briefing room, the Trump administration is attempting to stifle real journalism, says media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford / WP/The Washington Post)

When you think about it, if abrupt reopening were popular, Trump’s approval would be higher than “44 percent positive and 56 percent negative, in line with where he was two weeks ago and only slightly worse than a week ago,” as The Post reported Tuesday. If caution in reopening were a political loser, you wouldn’t see governors get 75 percent approval with “big positive majorities across the parties.”

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Trump’s desperation to reopen business regardless of the consequences smacks of the same magical thinking that drove him to declare a virus in China was no threat here and that the early reported 15 cases of the novel coronavirus would go down to zero. No conspiracy theory or miracle cure or right-wing media rumor Trump latches on to can obscure the intractable reality: The virus’s deadly effects are merely kept at bay by social distancing, but without a cure or a vaccine, deaths will spike when distancing is relaxed. And the public knows it.

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