A gradual, phased-in reopening of society makes sense


Up until yesterday, the outlook for the coronavirus outbreak in the United States was starting to look better.

By most measuring sticks — new cases and deaths per day nationally, state-level cases and deaths, county-level cases and deaths — the “curve” in most places in the United States appeared to be plateauing and maybe even starting to decline. Most places still are, although yesterday the daily death count jumped from Monday’s 1,939 to 2,804 (!). New York continued to lead the pack with 764 dead, followed by New Jersey (376), Pennsylvania (266), Michigan (232) and Massachusetts (152).

Yesterday’s awful numbers may complicate the effort to start the much-needed reopening of businesses around the country. Considering the catastrophic state of the economy, a gradual, phased-in reopening of society makes sense — encouraging every American going out in public to continue practicing social distancing at all times. First and foremost, Americans should get their non-coronavirus health care needs met, in a manner that keeps those vulnerable to infection separate from those being treated for the coronavirus.

Unfortunately, we may need to continue to minimize our interaction with others — shop, but don’t linger. Factories could restart, albeit with efforts to keep masked workers farther apart than before. Construction projects could restart if they stopped. Americans could get the car repaired, take the clothes to the dry cleaners.

Perhaps we could really go nuts and allow Michiganders to buy carpet or flooring, furniture, garden centers and plant nurseries, or paint.

Maybe movie theaters and dine-in restaurants could open, if the patrons were seated sufficiently far apart — but apparently ventilation systems make it easy to spread the virus around, so maybe those patrons will have to be really far apart. Eating requires us to use our mouths, and that will inevitably make wearing masks less effective.

Wide-open spaces like parks and beaches seem pretty safe, as long as everyone practices social distancing.

But some of the reopening decisions recently announced by Georgia governor Brian Kemp feel a little riskier. Gyms? That seems like a spot where people would sweat and shed viruses a lot. How often will they be wiping down and disinfecting the equipment? Haircuts? Manicures and pedicures? Massages? Tattoos? Any job where a non-medical worker touches or closely interacts with a lot of other people throughout the course of the day feels rather risky at this point. At minimum, this is going to require the kinds of personal protective equipment being used in hospitals right now; Kemp’s order “strongly encourages” the use of PPE, and cleaning and disinfecting any ATMs, credit or debit card pinpads, and electronic signature pads, “after each transaction, if possible.”

How comfortable would you feel, closely interacting with someone who has been closely interacting with other people all day long? How comfortable are you pressing a button on an ATM or credit card pinpad?

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