We are now on Day #3421 of the coronavirus COVID-19 quarantine, or at least it feels that way. Some states are trying to “open up” again. The stock market has recovered somewhat from its most recent depression-era drop. So what should we expect when we’re expecting a coronavirus recovery?
Unlike when we’re expecting a baby, we won’t reach a given date and out pops a fully formed bundled of economic normalcy. At best we’re looking at a slow-rolling opening. With back-steps. And maybe another quarantine lockdown.
Anyone who says we’re ready to fully open right now is lying to you. And more people will die. This isn’t alarmism or partisan talk; it’s simply biological fact. We’re battling a virus here, not a difference of opinion on whether everyone should have health care or not (although this crisis has certainly shown the ludicrousness of tying health insurance to having a job). As more and more people move out into society, that is, interaction with other people not in their household, the virus will spread and people will die. This week the federal government revealed that the model that estimated a death toll of around 60,000 Americans is now estimating that could rise to around 135,000 deaths. Why the increase? Because 1) people are not social distancing adequately now, and 2) reopening businesses will increase the number of interactions, which increases number of cases, which increases number of deaths.
Also, this isn’t going away anytime soon. We won’t miraculously reach July 4th, say, and the virus is gone. It won’t be gone until there is a vaccine, and even then it might mutate enough to always be with us, something like the seasonal flu that needs a new shot each year because this year’s strain is different enough from last year’s strain to make our antibodies ineffective. All this means is that we may be dealing with coronavirus/COVID-19 for one or two years before a vaccine is ready. Given that the process of developing vaccines can take five to 10 years, a 1-2 year timeframe is actually a bit of wishful thinking.
So what will a recovery look like?
For one, it will look a little different depending on where you live. Given the lack of action from the federal government, and worse, the hindrance of state efforts, each state will have a different plan and timetable for reopening. Larger states may even have different timetables for different parts of their states.
For example, more rural counties in New York State may move further alone the stages of reopening than the more crowded New York City. Urban areas have higher risk of transmission of the virus to others, while rural areas would obviously have a lower risk as the number of people one encounters should be fewer. On the other hand, rural areas also have notoriously poorer health care options, thus potentially decreasing the survival rate should the virus spread.
You’ll be wearing masks in pubic places for a long time, perhaps 1-2 years or more. Not necessarily when you’re out jogging or walking in the park, but certainly in grocery stores and any other enclosed places that might be opening up. Masks are just a fashion statement, they protect you and the person near you…and by extension, your grandmother. Wear them.
I hope you like the 6-foot rule because we’re going to have to keep up the social distancing routine for a long time too. You’ll see why as we continue.
But what about restaurants?
Phew, I was afraid you wouldn’t ask. At some point, restaurants will reopen, assuming they didn’t go bankrupt when the administration gave all their “small business” loans to big corporations instead of family-owned restaurants and stores. Most proposals have restaurants opening in a sliding scale over time starting with expanding “take-out only” to allow in-store ordering to go. Eventually some restaurants (we’re talking about you, Starbucks) will allow in-store seating, initially at 25% capacity or whatever allows them to keep patrons at least six feet apart (remember your social distancing skills). We may not get back to full capacity for the aforementioned 1-2 years or more. No one knows how the mask thing will work in restaurants. Certainly patrons will have to take off their masks to eat, but what about the waiters/waitresses and other workers who come in contact with many patrons? To be determined.
The limited capacity and social distancing applies to most other stores as well. Limits on the number of people allowed in a store at a time will evolve from none to 10 to 50 to whatever on a schedule determined by the virus. Libraries may initially open up only for pick up of books on hold, after all, can you imagine the logics of wiping down every book in the joint after every patron wanders through? Again, eventually in-library seating will restart and expand over time.
What about my office downtown; will that reopen soon?
Guess what, probably not. Two reasons:
- The remote work/working from home idea has actually been rather effective for most office-based businesses). I was largely available 24/7 in my old office because of Wifi and network links, whether I was at home, on my smart phone, or sitting in an airport or hotel overseas. Now we have Zoom (whose stock price has skyrocketed), Google Hangout, GoToMeeting, Skype, Webex, and other online meeting services. It’s like being at the office, without the commute.
- Mass transit will be a problem. Yup, that commute. While you may be able to hole up in your teeny office space at work, getting there on the subway, the bus, the train, the plane, the whatever, could be a problem. Remember the last time you squeezed onto the subway at rush hour? Social distancing, Not.
We’re making progress, so the [insert sports team of choice] will start their season soon?
Um, no. Imagine 20,000 to 100,000 people crammed into a stadium to watch some overpaid athletes play a grownup version of the games I played on the street as a kid. Now think about a medical term called the R0 (R-Naught), which is essentially the average number of people one infected person can transmit the virus to. The R0 for COVID-19 is currently listed as 5.7, which means one person could infect 5 to 6 other people. And then those 5-6 people could transmit it to another 5-6 people, each. So a stadium would basically be a really really big petri dish for spreading the virus.
But wait, that means no sports for 1-2 years (or more)?
Yes. Or maybe No. We don’t know yet. The Korean baseball league has just started playing games again after a delay of several weeks. But they are playing with zero fans in the stands (they do, however, have photos of “fans” covering all the seats in a remarkable attempt to be “normal”). Will American (and European, etc.) sports do the same, play their games in empty stadiums? Maybe. If they play, fans could watch it on TV. But wouldn’t that mean the players would be at heightened risk? Let’s see, a bunch of heavily sweating and spitting men (and women) constantly in physical contact with each other? Absolutely. Players would be endangering themselves and their families.
Is it worth it? Personally, I prefer sporting events, concerts, and other big stadium activities be avoided until there is a confirmed effective vaccine widely distributed. But that’s just me.
All of this is a tough call for policy-makers. The more the virus spreads the more people will become infected and the more people will die. But more infection also means more antibody development, which in theory should protect us from future infections. I say in theory because there are already cases in which people once infected, and thus supposedly immune, have become infected a second time. If making the decision to reopen wasn’t hard enough, we have to deal with a lot of uncertainty about what the virus will do in the future. No matter how we look at it, reopening carries a certain level of risk.
But we have to reopen the economy at some point. I’m inconvenienced (I really, really want to eat out at my favorite restaurant and travel overseas), but I can hold out as necessary. Other people are more direly impacted. The “work from home” thing works okay for many businesses, but you can’t wait restaurant tables from your living room. I was surprised that something approaching 80% of households can’t afford to miss one or two paychecks without significant financial hardship. Despite protections that (again, in theory) were put in place with the various stimulus bills passed by Congress, many people are faced with default on mortgages, car loans, even basic electricity and gas to run their stoves. The only way for these people to survive is for them to be able to get back to work.
[By the way, don’t be distracted by the “back to work protests.” These aren’t protests, they are domestic terrorism rallies organized by racist white supremacist groups and the NRA to intimidate Governors and governments.]
We can’t, and won’t, wait until there is zero risk. Zero risk is impossible in any aspect of our lives. But we can begin a process of reopening using science-based decision-making. That means the virus defines the timetable. But it also means that policy-makers – mostly Governors and Mayors – have to make the hard decisions on what to allow open and when. It’s inevitable we’ll see increased cases as we interact more in public, but with adequate testing, contact tracing, and medical capacity we can limit the number of people who need critical medical care. Responsible leaders are paying attention to medical professions and carefully monitoring case rebound.
For the rest of us, keep wearing the mask in public, maintain social distancing unless absolutely necessary to do otherwise, and support honest decision-making. As businesses start to reopen, and especially for local small businesses, go there and purchase their products and services. Do it wisely and observe the necessary distancing and capacity limitations, but do what you can to support those businesses and workers most impacted by the shutdowns.
One last thing. Thank those essential workers that continue to risk their health and lives to make your life easier. Doctors, nurses, disinfecting staff for sure, but also the cashier and other workers at your local grocery store, the people at CVS who keep your prescriptions coming and your basic needs met, the postal workers who now can add “viruses” to their list of calamities through which they continue to work, the teachers who teach your children remotely, and everyone else that has continued to work during these trying times.
Stay healthy. Stay safe. And stay home.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.
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