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Opinion We are asking the wrong question about reopening

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) speaks to reporters on Wednesday. (Justin Lane//EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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“It’s not a question of do we reopen. It’s a question of how we reopen,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) at his news conference on Wednesday. “Our position in New York is the answer to the question, how do we reopen, is by following facts and data as opposed to emotion and politics. Right?” He added, “You can calibrate by the number of hospitalizations, the infection rate, the number of deaths, the percentage of hospital capacity, the percentage that you’re finding on antibody tests, the percentage of finding on diagnostic tests, positive, negative. You’re collecting tracing data, make your decisions based on the information and the data.” He said the proof is in the numbers: New York’s cases and deaths are declining as the rest of the country’s increases.

To refine Cuomo’s point, the issue is not if we reopen but whether we open stupidly, with reckless disregard for human life, or as carefully as possible, driven by the data, so as to avoid unnecessary death and human suffering. This points to the great malfeasance by red-state governors, who could achieve the same ends (restarting the economy) without great loss of life if they did this intelligently. They choose not to because they choose not to lead, to communicate the stakes and to act responsibly.

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Cuomo has a complex set of metrics for deciding which areas of the state can open and when. The White House press secretary insists it is “nonsensical” to insist on widespread testing before reopening the economy. She might want to talk to public health officials such as Deborah Birx or Anthony Fauci, who can explain that the only way to keep a lid on the virus is to do what we should have done initially — test widely, track positive tests and isolate positive-testing individuals. That is the only alternative to sheltering in home if you want to prevent a resurgence of the pandemic. The White House might even talk to a conservative Republican such as Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who at a (virtual) Senate Finance Committee hearing explained the need for widespread testing after eliciting expert testimony that we need to get to 20 million to 25 million tests a day:

There needs to be a level of comfort, and it doesn’t matter what a governor says or what a senator or even what the president says in terms of time to reopen. It will be a consumer decision. People will vote with their feet.

That’s true of a person’s willingness to go to a doctor’s office or to go into a store or a restaurant or a workplace. The way people get that comfort-level is to see an effective system of testing that they know will isolate people with the virus as well as those they’ve had contact with. Testing is needed not only to prevent another widespread outbreak but also to instill confidence in employees, workers, consumers and patients that they can re-engage in the economy. There is nothing “nonsensical” about that.

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To the contrary, it is downright scary that the White House thinks it can proceed with its magical thinking — goading governors to reopen and businesses to resume operation while cases and deaths are rising and we still have no effective testing program.

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Cuomo simply is not going to do it. He has said that metrics (e.g., declining cases, sufficient tests and tracking) must be in place because each human life is “priceless,” deserving of protection by a competent and rational government. In the end, New Yorkers will resume their economic activities, but without recklessly sacrificing the lives of their fellow Americans. The same cannot be said of red-state governors who are following an incompetent and ignorant White House.

With severe shortages of protective equipment, nurses and other workers are having to choose between helping others and ensuring their own safety. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Patricia Lafontant/The Washington Post)

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