The stay-at-home order Gov. Larry Hogan issued Monday might not be all that different from the guidelines we were already living under, but the psychological effect is heavy. It’s no longer a suggestion to stay home, but a directive that carries the weight of up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine if willfully disobeyed.
While Marylanders can still go out for essential activities — exercising and obtaining vital services and supplies — businesses have been told to scale down operations, campgrounds are now shuttered, and unnecessary out of state travel is off the table. So much for the Gettysburg Driving Tour app that’s making the rounds.
And the question on all our minds is the same: When will it end?
We talk about social distancing and stay-home orders in terms of weeks or a single month at a time. But the reality is that “normal” is many months away. We may not see it at all in 2020.
Even if we largely reopen for business within a month or two (or three), we’ll still be living under the shadow of coronavirus. Scientists predict that the pandemic will last until as much as two-thirds of the world’s population has developed some kind of immunity, either by surviving an infection or receiving a vaccine, which is still as far as 18 months away from becoming a reality.
The social distancing and business closures we’re enacting now are slowing the spread of the disease, and helping prevent our health care system from becoming overwhelmed. But they’re also lengthening the time it will take to achieve such “herd immunity” — when the virus will begin to fade, as it runs into invulnerable hosts, and becomes less of a threat.
Perhaps the vaccine timeline is the most realistic for a return to pre-pandemic times. Maybe not for stay-at-home orders and lockdowns, but for getting out from under the fear and uncertainty of this particular coronavirus. We will undoubtedly get back to bigger business before then. And it will undoubtedly come at a cost.
On Tuesday, Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, both members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said the U.S. is likely facing between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths occurring through June under the current COVID-19 mitigation efforts, which the president recently extended through April 30. But what if we extended social distancing to May 30? Or June 30? How many lives could that save, and how many businesses could it destroy? Those are difficult questions we must ask.
Wuhan, China, where the novel coronavirus originated, is now starting to reopen certain businesses, 10 weeks after officials implemented a strict lockdown on Jan. 23 that barred some residents from leaving their neighborhoods, even to seek out groceries. The lockdown is now set to lift April 8. Malls are reopening, public transportation is running, and some folks have resumed walking their dogs.
But all 11 million residents are still expected to practice social distancing, and officials know they are risking a resurgence of the virus by restarting economic activity. There is a “continuous struggle of front-line party organizations at all levels” to focus on “epidemic prevention and control in one hand and resuming production in” the other, China Daily, the Communist Party-controlled newspaper, acknowledged Monday.
If we, too, loosen restrictions, we will face the same challenge. There’s also the question of public demand. After a few weeks, will people want to risk clothes shopping? Going to a movie? To bars? A party? Will parents be ready to send their children back to school? The current school closure order in Maryland is only in place until April 24; with COVID-19 cases rising in the state, that no longer seems so far away.
We know many didn’t initially take social distancing seriously, but as the deaths and hospitalizations mount, that’s likely to change. Maryland residents have already begun calling police when they see others violating the stay-at-home order.
It appears we will likely come out of this as gradually as we went in. So maybe it’s not an end we wait for, but an emergence.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.