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Edelman: Phased reopening has begun, but COVID-19 isn’t going away

Last Wednesday, Gov. Hogan announced plans to move the state from a “stay at home” to a “safer-at-home” policy as he announced easing of restrictions put in place to protect our citizens’ safety. Some see that move as an appropriate step toward economic recovery, while others see it as an increased threat to public safety. To a degree, both are right. The COVID-19 epidemic has killed more than 80,000 Americans and put more than 30 million people out of work. Both human safety and economic recovery are essential.

The factors that affect our health and safety in this pandemic are social distancing, testing for the virus’ presence, contact tracing, and the availability of a vaccine. Reducing the rate of infections allows the medical system to cope with the people who get sick and hopefully keep more of them alive, and you are less likely to get sick if you stay home. It’s a good idea for people to know whether they’re sick with Covid-19, and that’s why we need reliable tests, and many millions more of them than are presently available. If you get sick, it’s a very good idea to check the people whom you might have exposed to the virus, so that they can be quarantined and not make others sick. Contact tracing has been done before for what are euphemistically called “social diseases,” and it worked to prevent their spread.

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This virus isn’t going away any time soon. The search for a safe and effective vaccine will take time. Even with thousands of researchers working to produce one, you just cannot speed up the process. It’s wildly optimistic to expect a reliable vaccine before the end of this year, foolish to rely on one being available that soon.

The elements that control economic recovery are rather murkier. We know that spending drives the economy. With more than 30 million unemployed, a lot of people don’t have income. It’s hard to spend money you just don’t have. Far too little of that $2 trillion stimulus reached consumers; far too much went to those who did not need it — think L.A. Lakers, for example. The House passed a massive $3 trillion relief bill last Friday. The Senate refuses to consider it, no matter how much that money will speed up recovery and relieve financial burdens placed on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. The one certainty about opening is that it comes with the risk of increased numbers of COVID-19 infections. States like Georgia and Florida are conducting an experiment to see just how great that risk is.

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Hogan left it to county governments to implement his phased reopening plan at their pace. Carroll County moved forward at full speed, but it’s important to remember that we are still very far from returning to our 2019 ways of doing things. When we leave our homes, we still must wear face masks in indoor public places and maintain social distancing. Gatherings are still limited to 10 or fewer people. Those still employed are encouraged to work from home as much as possible.

We need to ask if the infrastructure we need is in place to make the governor’s transition plan work. The state has not hired enough people to conduct contact tracing. Are there adequate child-care centers for people returning to work? Importantly, each county can set whatever limits it sees as appropriate. People living in locales with tighter controls in place will doubtless travel to less restricted areas like Carroll or Harford counties. Will inter-county migrants increase the spread of COVID-19? How will businesses operating in different parts of the state be able to cope with the crazy-quilt of inconsistent regulations this plan will spawn?

I wonder how much protests by angry mobs in places like Lansing, Michigan and on the Eastern Shore had any influence on the governor’s decision. Armed Trump loyalists forced the shutdown of Michigan’s legislature and threatened violence on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who said she found the protesters’ threats of violence “disturbing.”

At a rally last week in Salisbury, Rep. Andy Harris (R-01) ignored mask and distancing requirements as he compared Maryland to North Korea and Communist China. Hogan has seen the poisonous responses the White House aimed at states that triggered Trump’s temper; it’s been barely two weeks since Hogan had to put test kits under guard at an undisclosed location to protect them from being seized by the federal government. No one, friend or foe, is safe from presidential retaliation for insults, real or imagined, and it must have irked the president that a republican governor felt that threatened by him.

In any event, we are moving into new, uncharted territory, and whatever shape reopening takes, it’s up to each of us to stay safe.

Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. His column runs every other Tuesday. Email him at mjemath@gmail.com

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