We have had a lot of recent news about reopening pieces of American life. Per last week’s post, we have shifted from waiting for a vaccine, which could take anywhere from several months to several years, to relying on the social distancing we have learned and generally done well with to keep us safe in additional situations.
Per the May 19th New York Times, “All 50 States Have Eased Coronavirus Restrictions.” Places like Connecticut and Pennsylvania, previously with bans on people leaving their homes for anything nonessential, are in the process of lifting those and at least matching policies here in New York state, where, for example, general driving has been allowed. On the other side, Alaska is, effective today, returning to total pre-virus openness.
The important thing to realize here is that freedom to conduct business does not mean the economy returning to February’s levels. Between people broke from losing their jobs, those pulling back financially in preparation for possible problems, and those of us not wanting to risk our health for things as small as haircuts, most in-person businesses can expect only about 25% of their previous sales. Confidence, through drastic reductions (not just leveling off) of new-infection rates, will we hope improve with time, but no legislation, short of spending not only trillions but tens of trillions of dollars on personal subsidies instead of large-corporation bailouts (with the low cost of money, large firms should be borrowing instead), will turn the clock back. With intense politicization of the pandemic and poor federal guidance, people will be trusting their own judgment, which, with stores in small Idaho towns generally less crowded and therefore safer than those in Philadelphia or Cleveland, is appropriate.
One area getting especially large press has been what colleges will do in the fall. Previously I wrote on a piece remarkably reckless for an Ivy League president, and an unstated rebuttal, “Colleges Are Deluding Themselves,” came out in the May Atlantic. Its author Michael J. Sorrell, president of tiny Paul Quinn College, made all of the right points: the background that “American higher education was in crisis long before the coronavirus”; the need for, and Sorrell’s experience at, universities adapting forcefully to changing times; a research discovery that “physical classes alone put almost all students on campus in close proximity to one another,” with “replacing the largest lecture courses with online classes… not enough to reduce the risk”; and clear statements that “if a school’s cost-benefit analysis leads to a conclusion that included the term acceptable number of casualties (italics his), it is time for a new model” and “for college students… sacrifices will include long periods of remote learning.” I think efforts to have normal campus life this fall are doomed to tragic, spectacular failure, and, as I wrote before, we have more critical national problems than requiring that people mostly around age 20 choose between taking a gap year or making do with online courses.
Elsewhere, we may need to “Hunker down: Some states say no full-scale reopening until coronavirus vaccine, treatment is ready” (Tyler Olson, Fox News, May 19th). As reasonable as Alaska’s choice in context are statements from governors and mayors of New Jersey, Michigan, Los Angeles, Illinois, and Oklahoma City, that for example, per New Jersey governor Phil Murphy, “until either a proven vaccine is in our midst or proven therapeutics are widely available, we cannot firmly enter the new normal, which eventually awaits us when life will once again return to all of our workplaces, downtowns and main streets… and if we begin to see a backslide in public health, we will have to also pull back on the reins of our restart.” And per “What to Expect When a Coronavirus Vaccine Finally Arrives,” in the May 20th New York Times, it may take a while. The polio virus was stopped by the 1950s Salk and Sabin vaccines after, of three similar attempts, “two proved ineffective, another deadly,” and the Salk vaccine itself had “flawed batches” which “caused more than 200 polio cases and 11 deaths.”
So, let’s cheer the work being done here, but not hold our breaths. Likewise, we’ll hope the reopenings, which seem generally sober and measured, work without a second Covid-19 explosion. But we will need to be patient. As the new saying goes, six feet apart is better than six feet under.