The grim reality is that additional lives will be lost as we reopen our country — in fact, as a result of reopening our country. But the equally grim reality is that additional lives will most certainly be lost if we do not. What will we say to those who, because of the despair caused by hunger, homelessness and economic ruin, fall victim to domestic violence, drug addiction and depression? There are no easy or cost-free solutions.
In early March, I endorsed very aggressive state shutdowns to do what the medical experts were advocating — to flatten the curve of the novel coronavirus. It was the right thing to do.
But these actions have, inevitably, accomplished something else — the loss of 30 million jobs, with that number growing every week. Miles-long lines at food banks. A loss of hope and a sense of despair.
One of the faces of this part of the American crisis is Jean Wickham, a member of a family employed by the casino industry in Atlantic City. Now out of work, she waited in one of those food bank lines for the very first time. “I’m just afraid I’m going to lose my house,” she said. "I feel like a failure right now.” Wickham, 55, has worked since she was 14 years old. She has not failed at anything; the virus and our necessary response have foisted this upon her and her family.
Now our challenge is to do what it takes to help the tens of millions of Jean Wickhams across the United States. I am not arguing for a return of rock concerts and full baseball stadiums with people without masks on top of one another — in other words, a return to pre-March 2020 America.
Instead, I have advocated the wearing of masks when we leave our homes. An opening of businesses at 50 percent capacity — county by county, as local circumstances allow. Requiring temperature checks as a condition of entrance, with increases in capacity permitted based upon data monitoring. Continued sheltering of vulnerable individuals and invocation of the Defense Production Act to speed the availability of broad testing.
Some have argued that a premature opening of our economy could lead to a new explosion of the virus and do even more damage. They utilize a pre-shutdown equation that shows that every coronavirus patient infected 2.5 more people. They ascribe the same math to infection rate post-lockdown. This theory is flawed because the lockdown has changed American behavior toward public interaction. That will limit community spread of this virus.
Americans now understand the importance of wearing masks, repeatedly washing our hands and frequently disinfecting surfaces. We understand the new social order of not shaking hands or being too close to one another. I trust the American people. After all this has cost us in lives and treasure, we will act responsibly as we begin to move toward the new normal. Leaders who do not understand that about their citizens underestimate us and are causing unnecessary damage to our future.
Will the course of action that I advocate lead to a risk-free America where no lives are threatened? Of course not. Nor will the actions being taken by the “lockdown until everyone can be tested” advocates, either. No war is risk-free.
In his fireside chat of Sept. 7, 1942, Franklin Roosevelt addressed the challenges of the war we were engaged in across the globe, noting that “we Americans of today bear the gravest of responsibilities. ... All of us here at home are being tested — for our fortitude, for our selfless devotion to our country and to our cause.” Today, we are being tested again. FDR assured Americans that they were “tough enough to meet this unprecedented challenge,” and that remains true today.
Now is a time for balancing the value of every life — the victims of coronavirus and the victims of the national shutdown. Now is the time for honestly telling our citizens, as FDR did in 1942, that preserving “our country" and "our cause” will not be without sacrifice. The American way of life is one of our most important causes. The prosperity that allows democracy to thrive is in peril in 2020 if we are unwilling to accept the risk of reasonably allowing our country to get back to work.