The last several days have heralded the first baby steps of reopening as a handful of states from Alaska to Georgia have relaxed stay-in-place restrictions imposed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Under different circumstances, this might be cause for celebration. Instead, it has the look of some really bad choices, a premature effort to bring normalcy to a still-abnormal circumstance, that could make matters substantially worse. In Georgia, Monday marked the day restaurants and movie theaters are allowed to open. Movie theaters! And that follows hair and nail salons, gyms, bowling alleys, tattoo studios and massage therapists given the green light on Friday. Even President Donald Trump, who is clearly anxious to restart the U.S. economy, isn’t sold on Gov. Brian Kemp’s aggressive schedule, telling reporters last week that he “totally disagrees” with it.
Here’s the problem with all this wishful thinking in places like Atlanta. It doesn’t only compromise the health and safety of the people who work in those businesses and their misguided patrons but the broader community. As coronavirus-related standards are reduced (and exposing oneself to more potential carriers even while wearing a face covering and keeping distance is surely that), the chances of containing the outbreak are reduced as well. Not just in Georgia or Texas or Oklahoma, Montana or Minnesota but border states and perhaps beyond. Governors should let public health standards, not politics, be their guide.
That’s why Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement Friday that Maryland’s “roadmap to recovery” plan will require the state to meet a statistical benchmark: two weeks of decreased numbers of hospitalizations, use of intensive care units and deaths due to the coronavirus. The simplest measure? The hospitalization rate. As long as it continues to climb or even plateau, the governor sees it as too early to relax restrictions. And even that is not the only condition in a state that has lost more than 850 people to the pandemic. Mr. Hogan has also pledged to hold back until the state has access to sufficient testing and its contact tracing program fully in place, and there is sufficient protective gear and hospital capacity in case there is a surge in cases.
These are not arbitrary standards. As the governor noted, they were formulated in consultation with medical experts. But they also directly mirror what the federal coronavirus task force recommended in mid-April — again, two weeks of “downward trajectory” of cases that are required to gradually life restrictions in three phases. So it’s not just two weeks of good numbers to start the process, it’s two weeks of good numbers to go from Phase 1 to Phase 2 and so on. This is not only wise from an epidemiological point of view but from a political one. What happens to a governor who puts lives in jeopardy prematurely and then sees the death count rise? Most likely, he or she loses credibility with the public, and that’s no small loss in the middle of a pandemic that has cost this country 55,000 lives and counting.
We don’t doubt that there’s a risk even if a governor follows science-backed markers. But if, for example, Maryland sees a spike in hospitalizations after some of the restrictions are lifted, Mr. Hogan can legitimately point out that he was following best practices. People will understand that. He can continue to lead. Contrast that to what happens to a governor who lifts restrictions for some less tangible reasons such as a “gut instinct” or perhaps simply in response to increasing pressure from business owners and angry protesters. Why would the public have confidence in that person again? The damage such distrust might do to the economic recovery is inestimable.
The important point here is not just to trust the judgment of Dr. Anthony Fauci over just about anyone in the White House or that Governor Hogan’s plan is far more rational than anything to be found in the Peach State, it’s that governance in the time of COVID-19 isn’t about orders from above, it’s about our nation’s collective understanding of what’s safe and what isn’t. Most Americans understand and support stay-in-place and social distancing guidelines. How do you convince them it’s time to venture out? With science. With numbers. With measurements. And with honesty. As Dr. Deborah L. Birx recently pointed out, social distancing is likely to continue for months. That isn’t the reality we’d prefer, but it’s the truth of our circumstances.
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.