Here’s the thing about a virus: It doesn’t listen to FOX News or CNN. It doesn’t make deals. It doesn’t participate in the country’s political battles. It doesn’t care about the calendar or about state boundaries. And while it is considered novel — that is, new, not completely understood and highly contagious — it could still end up anywhere and harm just about anyone.
That’s what I take from all I’ve read thus far about the coronavirus. While scientists know more about the virus today than they did in January, it’s still a virus at large. It does what it wants. It doesn’t care about agendas, timetables or balance sheets.
So when Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland’s only Republican in Congress, started pushing for the economy to reopen, even as thousands of Americans were dying each day — and they’re still dying each day — it seemed possible his words might come back to bite him.
“In areas like the Eastern Shore, where the [COVID-19] threat is much lower, we should move expeditiously to reopen the economy,” Harris said in a Facebook post last week.
I looked up “expeditiously” and it means what I thought: “with speed and efficiency.” And that’s pretty much the exact opposite of what should happen, according to the nation’s top health experts.
Harris, a Hopkins-trained anesthesiologist who voted dozens of times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, is clearly driven by conservative-libertarian ideology. If he leaned on his background in medicine, he might be more deferential to those who continue to urge caution.
The view that, on some randomly declared date, we can resume life as it was pre-COVID in one part of the state and not have it affect another seems obtuse. Rural areas are not as rural as they used to be; people aren’t as isolated as they used to be. People travel. They commute long distances to work and play. We’re all eager to return to the way we were. But, if you give people too early the idea that it’s OK to revert to pre-COVID behaviors, we could see a new spike in cases, as the nation’s leading virologists have warned.
Nonetheless, Harris doubled-down.
This week, he made clear that he’s at odds with Larry Hogan, Maryland’s Republican governor, over the restrictions Hogan has put in place to slow the transmission of the coronavirus.
The governor, a businessman, has handled an extremely complex problem with prudence informed by sound medical advice. He wants most of us to stay safe at home for the time being. He’s outlined a plan for gradually reopening businesses across the state. As a leader among the nation’s governors, he’s pushed for more testing for the virus as a key step toward better understanding the scope of the problem and getting to some kind of new normal.
Importantly, Hogan will follow federal guidelines that call for a 14-day decline in cases before making decisions about reopening the economy.
But that’s apparently not good enough, or nuanced enough, for Harris, a House Freedom Caucus member and, unlike Hogan, a Total Trumper.
“The problem is that the governor’s treating the state as one homogenous state, but it’s not,” Harris said Tuesday on a conservative cable channel. “It actually has rural areas where the prevalence of the disease is quite low, where the health care systems are not stressed, which could reopen shortly.”
Well, guess what?
The next day the Hogan administration identified a hot spot for the coronavirus in the state — an outbreak among Maryland poultry workers in Salisbury, seat of Wicomico County, on the Eastern Shore, in Harris’ 1st District, and home to Perdue. Some 260 poultry workers have been infected with COVID-19, the state says, and that bad news poses a threat to the region’s — indeed, the nation’s — market supply of chicken.
Wicomico County now has the fifth highest rate of coronavirus cases per capita in Maryland, and that’s higher than the rate in more densely populated Baltimore County.
Hogan reported this on Wednesday. Where was Andy Harris that day?
He was on a tour of businesses in Queen Anne’s County that the congressman believes should be allowed to open — the PRS Guitars factory in Stevensville, the Kent Narrows Boatel, Wye River Marine and the Queenstown Harbor Golf Course.
“We have to get recreational boating open again for their business to survive,” Harris wrote on Facebook. ”It’s time to do it now, since surrounding states are doing so.”
I agree that, while in their vessels on the Chesapeake Bay, boaters would not appear to be at high risk of spreading the virus or contracting it from someone else. The state has also discouraged recreational fishing this spring, except for personal consumption, and that strikes me as questionable, too.
But you know what? We can go on and on with speculations about what’s safe and what’s not. We can all play health expert the way Tucker Carlson did on FOX the other night: “The virus just isn’t nearly as deadly as we thought it was.” And, for that matter, we could all do what we want, making an individual choice to take on risks — reopen businesses, travel or gather wherever we like — and completely disregard the risks, known or unknown, we might pose to others.
But you know what? That’s not how a nation united, or a state united, is supposed to work. That’s not how we survive the virus.