April 26, 2020

The United States Will Soon Reopen for Business

COVID-19 face mask

The United States will soon re-open for business. Shelter-in-place orders will be lifted, and barriers to the operation of "non-essential services" will fall. The question of whether it is "safe" to re-open is not particularly relevant. We are going to re-open because staying closed is not sustainable. It won't be safe for a long time, and I think most of us know (or should know) that. This has become a politicized issue not because it should be but because everything is a politicized issue these days.

We will begin to be "safe" if and when there is an effective vaccine for the virus we are facing. The most optimistic timeline about when that could be is roughly 1-1.5 years. More realistic projections are 3-5 years. It should be obvious to any reasonable adult that we cannot maintain the current shutdown or anything close to it for 1-5 years. And so, we are going to open well before it is safe to do so. This means that infection rates will continue to climb, and people will continue to die. This isn't a political failing (although it can certainly be exacerbated by political failings) as much as it is a reality of our situation.

To make sense of this, one needs to remember what the point of the shelter-in-place orders was all along. The point was to make sure the hospitals did not get overwhelmed. The idea was never that we'd hunker down and emerge when the virus was gone. Some people seem to have forgotten this, and so I can understand why someone who has might have serious problems with the idea of re-opening. But we have known all along that this was not about waiting out the virus. We've known all along that more people were going to die as we re-open. The virus isn't going away or becoming less infectious. The goal isn't about preventing any of that; the goal is about spreading it out over time. This is what "flattening the curve" means, after all.

Unfortunately, the situation in which many of us are about to find themselves is that we will be ordered back to work before we feel safe returning. And we won't feel safe returning because we won't be safe returning. The virus is still there, and many of us will get sick. I suppose some might refuse to return to work, but they will be fired and replaced. The prospect of that happening, combined with the fact that many employers are eliminating jobs, is going to be a significant deterrent for many people. And so, we'll be back at work long before it is safe.

The last thing I want to do is defend the Republicans who are pushing to accelerate the re-opening. At the same time, I understand why they are doing so. Yes, they know that more people will die. But again, everybody who hasn't been in denial about reality has known that all along (i.e., people are going to keep dying until there is an effective vaccine). This isn't a Republican plot to eliminate the poor, persons of color, older adults, immigrants, or any other group. It was the plan all along.

Suppose for a moment that you are, like me, one of the lucky ones who has been able to work from home. It might be easy for us to say that we should stay locked down for a year or two because we are being paid to work from home. This doesn't work so well for everybody who doesn't have that privilege. And suppose you are retired and no longer have to worry about work. It might be easy for you to argue that we should stay locked down (as long as your retirement income is divorced from how the markets are performing). But again, this does not help most of the workforce who needs to be able to support themselves through work.

Perhaps we could stay locked down for a few years if we had a very different sort of economy. I'm just not sure what such an economy would look like. And we'd probably need a very different system of government to go with it. I'm not sure what that would look like either. What I am sure of is that we aren't going to design such an economy or a system of government quickly enough to help. And so, we are going to re-open because we have to. And people will continue to get sick and die because that's what this virus does.