[New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D)] also threw a lifeline to eager beachgoers on Friday when he announced that a consortium of four neighboring states — New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware — had agreed to reopen beaches and other waterfronts by Memorial Day weekend provided local governments enforced social distancing restrictions and reduced capacity.Local governments, however, are allowed to make their own judgments on opening beaches; in New York City, where infection rates have abated at a slower rate, beaches will remain closed.
That “lifeline” may be a death sentence unless they adhere to social distancing, which realistically will be nearly impossible to enforce on a beach with thousands of people. The two weeks following the beach weekend (i.e., the coronavirus incubation period) will tell us whether this was a wise accommodation to stir-crazy Americans or a dangerous concession.
On Sunday, governors were on the talk shows trying to explain their thought-process. At least some governors — the ones who jumped on the virus originally, responsibly closed schools and businesses, diligently ramped up testing, etc. — have detailed, data-driven plans (unlike the federal government).
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” two of the most competent governors, Democrat Gavin Newsom of California and Republican Mike DeWine of Ohio tried to interject some restraint in an atmosphere where too many politicians and ordinary Americans are throwing caution to the wind.
Newsom explained the dilemma: “The question is, how do you toggle back and make meaningful modifications to the stay-at-home order? And that’s where we’re now in this point of friction and a lot of frustration in cities, counties, not just states, all across the country.” How fast is too fast? Questions like that necessarily have no easy answer, as Newsom illustrated:
I think some schools will not be [open]. Many schools will be. And it’s all conditioned on our ability to not only keep our children safe, but to keep staff and faculty safe, to keep the community safe. So, it’s all predicated on data, on science, on not just observed evidence, the reality on the ground. Each part of California is unique and distinctive. Each region, each region of the United States is unique and distinctive. And certain conditions will present themselves favorably, some unfavorably. So, I think it’s a question that is a difficult one to answer in absolute terms.
Some California counties and cities have jumped the gun to reopen early, leaving Newsom to plead for “nuance” in reopening efforts. He continued, “And so we are in a situation where, every day, we have to be humbled by what we don’t know, and we have to be open to argument, interested in evidence. You cannot be ideological about this disease, and nor … can we be naive.” He went on: “If history doesn’t repeat itself, it certainly rhymes. And the realities of previous pandemics around the globe and those we experienced in the United States suggest not just second waves, but potential third waves.” But that raises the question, namely, of how responsible officials are going to prevent mass gatherings that may reignite the pandemic. Newsom’s answer was not all that reassuring:
Well, the reality is, about 75 percent of our economy is already open in the state of California, with modifications. We have seen dozens of counties that have moved more quickly through what we refer to in this state as stage two, where restaurants are reopening, office, manufacturing, logistics, warehousing operations and the like. But it’s with modifications. So, when you look for the future, you have got to paint a picture of those modifications, where people are practicing physical distancing, or should be, where people are putting face coverings on when they otherwise are coming into contact with strangers. But the idea of having stadiums filled with 80-plus-thousand people, strangers coming together across their differences … could be profound and devastating and set back all the progress we have made.
DeWine sounded a similar sense of caution:
HOST JAKE TAPPER: How likely is it, do you think, that, a few weeks from now, you’re going to see a spike of new cases in Ohio, and you might need to put some of the measures back in place?DEWINE: Well, we certainly hope we don’t see that.What I have said to Ohioans ... is that so much is in every individual’s control, 11.7 million people in Ohio. We have got to continue to have — keep the space. I have really urged people to wear a mask when they go out in public. Every employee in Ohio is wearing a mask today. …TAPPER: I want you to take a look at these pictures from a bar in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday. This was the first day that outdoor dining businesses were allowed to reopen.That's a pretty big crowd of people. They don't seem to be wearing masks. They don't seem to be separated from each other six feet or whatever, not a lot of distance between patrons. You have seen these images. Does it concern you?DEWINE: Absolutely. I saw those images very early. We had people there last night. The good news is that the ownership, people running the bar, seem to get control of it last night. We didn’t have to issue any citations.We did issue a citation for another bar in Columbus. And, candidly, we have worked with the attorney general, Dave Yost. And we’re going to do whatever we have to do if these things are — in fact, occur across Ohio, wherever they occur. But, ultimately, it’s going to come to Ohioans doing what Ohioans have done for the last two months, and that is, by and large, done exactly what they should do, try to keep the distance.We’re encouraging more people to wear a mask, as I said. But it’s going to really be determined by what we do in the next month or so. … So, all of this is a work in progress. We made the decision to start opening up Ohio, and about 90 percent of our economy is back open, because we thought it was a huge risk not to open. But we also know it’s a huge risk in opening.
Newsom and DeWine underscored some key points that affect the entire country.
First, when you reopen recreational facilities, bars and restaurants, you are shifting the responsibility for social distancing to millions of people. By the time you have issued a citation or a business owner has gotten a crowd to disperse, dozens of people may have been infected. A “high-risk experiment” does not capture how truly dangerous the next period might be.
Second, some people will not return to beaches, stores, offices, public transportation and the like because they simply do not feel safe. All the cheerleading in the world from President Trump and Republican governors does not mean thousands of people will willingly cram together on subways to get to offices. We are likely to experience a Swiss cheese economy for some time, with many still absent from public spaces and businesses operating at less than full capacity.
Finally, the margin of error is tiny. If the infection rate is less than 1.0 (one person infects one person), we are on a path to suppressing the pandemic; if that rises to 1.2, you are back to an epidemic. Unless politicians and ordinary Americans alike appreciate the tightrope we are collectively walking, deaths will rise once more and the risky experiment in gradual reopening will be an abject failure.