States Are Reopening. What Happens Next?

States are reopening whether they’re ready or not. Will cases spike or will we slowly get back to normal?

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Almost all states in the country are starting to open back up. Some states that did so several weeks ago ignored White House guidelines for safely reopening. Nobody really knows for certain what will happen next. Some think cases will spike, which may lead to another shutdown. Others believe coronavirus was completely overblown, and there was no reason to shut down in the first place. 

What you think will happen next largely depends on how you feel politically. 71% of Republicans think the worst is behind us, and only 23% of Democrats believe the same. The virus has been politicized from the start; President Trump initially accused Democrats of making a bigger deal out of coronavirus than it actually is.

If we judge Trump by his own statements on the virus, he’s doing an awful job. On the day we had 60 total confirmed cases in the U.S., Trump said, “We’re going substantially down, not up.” He said the virus would “disappear” like a “miracle,” and that in April it would be gone due to the warmer weather.

On March 9th, when the country had just 22 confirmed coronavirus deaths, Trump compared the death toll of coronavirus to that of the flu. He said the flu kills around 37,000 people annually, which at the time dwarfed the 22 people that had died from coronavirus. Now, we’re approaching 100,000 coronavirus deaths.

The New York Times recently reported that earlier lockdown measures could have prevented 36,000 deaths or more. Although President Trump failed to implement a national shutdown strategy, some of (maybe even a majority of) the responsibility for failing to shut down earlier lies with governors and mayors.

There’s enough blame to go around

President Trump has taken the brunt of the blame for the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., but there are many other parties at fault. For the most part, Trump left the coronavirus response up to individual states, although he has made it known he is strongly pro-reopening. The White House certainly should have made a more coordinated effort to work with states and provided better guidance in response to the virus, but governors were mostly responsible for taking care of their own states.

Public perception isn’t always reality. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been widely praised for his response to the outbreak. 87% of New Yorkers approve of his response to the virus, and his overall favorability rating is up to 77%. Yet his slow response to the virus cost thousands of lives. ProPublica recently reported on the difference between California’s response and New York’s response to coronavirus. 

California had cooperation from the mayor of San Francisco and the governor, and San Francisco was shut down six days earlier than New York City. Governor Cuomo didn’t want to close down New York City because it was, “dangerous and served only to scare people,” according to ProPublica. The mayor of San Francisco sent New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio a copy of her shelter-in-place order, but Cuomo told de Blasio that he did not have authority to issue a citywide shelter-in-place order without state approval.

Cuomo eventually relented, of course, and his daily briefings found a national audience. Cuomo’s response seemed strong and decisive, but it came too late. Two epidemiologists argued in a New York Times article that New York could have cut the death toll in half or even more if they had imposed restrictions a week or two earlier. Over 27,000 people have died from coronavirus in New York so far, compared to a little over 3,000 in California (besides shutting down earlier, the warmer weather may have also helped lessen the impact in California), yet Andrew Cuomo is widely praised for his response to the virus because he provided competent leadership when his state needed it most.

Trump has not provided competent leadership. He constantly complains about negative press coverage, but if he had instead taken the virus seriously instead of downplaying it and showed strong leadership, Trump would likely receive less criticism in the media. As evidenced by Governor Cuomo, positive press coverage is sometimes more about optics than action.

Shutting down isn’t easy

It’s really easy to say in hindsight we should have shut down earlier, but in early March, shutting down a city or an entire state seemed like an overreaction. Although the U.S. wasn’t testing many people, the case count was low and life seemed relatively normal. 

Shutting down the economy of your state or country is one of the toughest decisions a politician could make. Sacrificing economic growth for lives may seem like an easy decision, but the damage caused by shutting the country down is nothing to scoff at. Almost 40 million people have filed for unemployment compensation over the last several months, and many businesses that were forced to close will never reopen. 

The U.S. does not have strong social safety nets like other developed countries. When someone loses their job, they may also lose their health insurance and home. Millions of Americans would have suffered no matter whether the country stayed open or shut down.

The pandemic shows the true value in progressive policies. Medicare for All doesn’t seem so radical when millions of Americans have lost their health insurance during a global pandemic. Tuition-free college for everyone makes sense when students are being forced to pay the same in tuition for an inferior online learning experience. A $15 per hour minimum wage seems reasonable when those receiving unemployment compensation are making over twice what they would make working a minimum wage job. 

What we’re doing right

I have no doubt that a stronger social safety net would have lessened the blow dealt to the country by coronavirus. It’s not all bleak, though; the U.S. is doing a good job in a few areas, and one of them is testing. Coronavirus testing was initially bungled by the CDC, but the United States is now one of the top countries in the world in testing, per capita. Press coverage of increased testing can be problematic; testing more people is always a good thing, but it does lead to an increase in the number of cases. That increase in cases is often covered negatively when it’s not actually a bad thing. The cases were there all along, and increasing testing to discover those cases helps slow the spread of coronavirus.

Trump has noticed that increased testing could be bad for him. He said, “If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.” The “sky is falling” narrative every time there’s a sharp increase in cases due to an increase of testing incentivizes the government to perform less tests. We need to keep increasing testing capacity if we want to keep the spread of the virus somewhat under control, and increases in cases that result solely from an increase in testing should receive positive coverage if we want the government to continue to expand testing. Discovering new cases by increasing testing is a good thing.

What happens next?

About three-quarters of Republicans think the worst is behind us, and about three-quarters of Democrats think the worst is yet to come. With states reopening, some of them possibly doing so before they should, will we receive another spike in cases? Or will things start to go back to normal?

Things will not truly go back to normal until we reach herd immunity or have a vaccine, so that is not going to happen anytime soon. It’s now looking likely that weather plays a significant role in transmission, and warmer temperatures and humidity may make it more difficult for coronavirus to spread. Other viruses have a harder time spreading in warmer weather too, so this isn’t a huge surprise. The increase in movement and activity we will see from states reopening will be negated to a certain extent by the increase in temperature and sunlight.

That is good news for the short-term, but bad news for the medium-term. Even with increased movement, and people going back to jobs, restaurants, and shopping, the U.S. may see the rate of infection slow down even further over the summer (although it won’t stop completely). Based on early evidence from states that are already reopened, we are unlikely to see dramatic spikes in infections, at least initially. Some states may stay flat for a while, but several different factors (changes in behavior, larger portion of the population no longer susceptible to infection, weather, large events canceled, better hygiene, etc.) make a summer peak unlikely.

Our biggest risk, in my opinion, is complacency. If infection rates decline, a large portion of the population will think we’re out of the woods. Guidelines will be relaxed further, mask-wearing and handwashing will go down, and larger events like weddings and religious services will resume. 

The big “second wave” of coronavirus will probably come in the fall or winter, when temperatures get colder, measures are relaxed, and kids go back to school. Without a vaccine (which could potentiallybe available in the fall or winter on a limited basis to those most at-risk) or herd immunity (likely still a long way off), we will need to take extra precautions to reduce the spread of coronavirus. 

If we’re unlucky, we will need another lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus. This will happen if we enter the fall and winter months overconfident and underprepared. High-density states and cities are the most at-risk, but as we’ve seen across the country, infection clusters can occur anywhere. It’s important that we keep increasing testing capacity, maintain good hygiene, and do everything we can to slow the spread. If we’re lucky, we’ll feel like we over prepared and did too much.

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