Attempting to reopen the country


Where do things stand now in our public response to the Covid-19 pandemic?

If you look at the fine details, and do it minute by minute, you’d have to say we’re in a period of diminished momentum and loss of focus. One reason for that is that the failure of planning at the top means we don’t live with a consistent sense of what our government’s strategy is, and are thrown around by daily events. The point of contingency and response planning in government isn’t the plans that result but the capacity to take in the big picture and think about strategic aims. (As Dwight Eisenhower put it, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”)

A further reason for a lack of momentum is a kind of reversion to political instincts and reflexes among both parties in Congress. For Republicans, that means a reversion to skepticism about the need for any action. For Democrats, it means a reversion to a decades-old to-do list rooted in mid-20th-century social-democratic dreams more than in any engagement with the realities of 21st-century America.

Senate Republicans are now talking about a pause in legislative action. They also reasoned (or at least Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did) that letting any new relief bill originate in the House would give Senate Republicans leverage to make demands against it, rather than having to accede to Democratic demands against a Republican bill. For the moment, it doesn’t seem like things are going to work that way, precisely because of the Democratic reversion to reflex: The bill that House Democrats unveiled this week is a ridiculous sham, directed to the management of the internal dynamics of the House Democratic caucus and not to the needs of a country facing immense public-health and economic challenges. It can’t readily serve as the foundation for actual legislation in this moment. It suggests the Democratic leadership, like the Republican leadership, doesn’t think another bill is necessary just now.

Maybe they’re right. Or maybe they just can’t do better. But I suspect both parties will be thinking differently by the end of May. It is simply much too soon to be talking about the crisis in the past tense, however much we may want to. The depths of the economic calamity we face are only starting to become apparent, and the public-health crisis itself is far from dealt with.

But what will most directly force Congress to act is probably the dire fiscal situation of the states. State needs are keenly felt by senators and representatives, they tend to cut across party lines, and they are increasingly urgent. Some Republicans still think they can ignore them, while Democrats think that expanding federal welfare programs and throwing money at high-tax states is the way forward. I suspect they will need to end up somewhere else—here is my sense of where. But one way or another, Congress is likely to want to provide the states some aid, and in the process a broader Phase IV bill will likely take shape over the coming weeks.

Now that all makes it sound like our response has run aground. And yet I don’t think that’s quite right. When you step back and take a broader view of where we stand, the general outlines of a plausible way forward aren’t that hard to see. If, say, two months ago you had asked yourself how we should try to respond to the crisis, you might have argued (or at least I did) that we should aim for a hard pause followed by a soft start: The goal was to find a sustainable way to live with the crisis until treatments or a vaccine are developed. We couldn’t do that by ratcheting down from normal, since that could easily overwhelm the health system. So we would need to do it by coming to a stop and then gradually ratcheting up. Two months later, we have more or less clumsily been following that path.

Its first phase has essentially succeeded: Americans proved remarkably willing to put their lives on hold and make very painful economic sacrifices to avert a catastrophic overwhelming of the health system. That catastrophe does appear to have been averted, even in the hardest-hit places. And the time is coming to gradually ratchet up economic activity while trying to mitigate the risk of increased transmission of the virus to the extent possible. The shutdown has been necessary and appropriate. But it is also necessary and appropriate now to start the return and seek that sustainable way to live with the virus until it can be beaten.

This isn’t happening in the clean way that the various official and unofficial guidelines would have preferred. It now doesn’t seem likely that various jurisdictions will wait to see 14 days of declining caseloads before entering a new phase, for instance. This is in part because we have succeeded in slowing the virus so that many places have reached plateaus in caseloads that aren’t likely to start declining continuously, and it’s in part because the economic costs of mitigation strategies are proving untenable.

But it still makes sense to begin a new phase relatively soon. Hospitalizations are at manageable levels in most places. And people have built up habits in the course of this shutdown—habits we simply didn’t have before—that look reasonably likely to help contain the spread some. We will wear masks and keep our distance. We will wash hands and keep our hands off surfaces. We won’t jump into crowds. We’re also ramping up testing considerably, even if widespread contact tracing remains beyond reach. And we’re going to ramp up economic and social activity slowly. Government restrictions will be lifted only gradually, and people’s own behavior will ease up even more gradually than that.

None of that is to say that starting to open up the economy won’t bring more infections, only that we are somewhat better equipped to contain and address those. The shutdowns involved a heavy and difficult tradeoff. The gradual reopening will too. But we are nearing the point, in many places, where on balance the latter tradeoff begins to make more sense than the former. The economic costs of the shutdowns have been growing as their public-health benefits have been diminishing. That suggests the shutdowns have been useful, not that they were a mistake. But it also suggests that it is time to move forward.

Such a move doesn’t mean, however, that we now need to focus on economic challenges to the exclusion of public-health ones. On the contrary. To be sustainable, the gradual reopening of the economy will need to be accompanied by strenuous efforts to keep the public-health crisis at bay. That will mean, to begin with, further expanding our testing capacity to keep track of the spread. It’s probably not reasonable to set specific numerical targets on this front; we just need a directional target: We need more testing every week than the week before it.

It will also mean emphasizing a strategy of separating the sick from the healthy whenever possible, which has not really been our way of thinking about this pandemic so far. And it will mean special emphasis on dealing with the riskiest settings: nursing homes, factories, prisons, and other high-exposure facilities. We have completely and catastrophically lacked a strategy for dealing with such settings, and that needs to change.

We also need to invest in building some sense of the geography and demography of any outbreak. It will be hard to do that quickly—it can take a month and more from a first batch of new cases until the shape of a genuine new outbreak becomes apparent in the data. That means reopening will involve some serious mistakes and setbacks to which local leaders will need to respond.

All of this will need to happen alongside the effort to revive the economy, which will need to include further legislative measures to deliver assistance to states, businesses, and workers. Reopening won’t mean a roaring return of the economy. People are scared and need to build trust in a new environment. Economic arrangements have been disrupted and need to be reconstructed. That will take time and trial and error. And public-health and economic support will have to work together to enable recovery.

It’s unlikely that any of this will happen systematically. It will happen crudely and clumsily. Looked at in detail and minute by minute, it won’t be pretty. There will be hysterical critics of this gradual reopening, just as there have been of the shutdowns. And they will be right in part, just as the shutdown’s critics surely have been. But I think they’ll be wrong on the whole, just as the shutdown’s critics have been. And if our elected officials think so too, they have to act on that sense, begin to fumble toward reopening, and do the best they can to navigate the choppy waters ahead.

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