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“WHAT DOES AND DOESN’T WORK”
(Jun. 30, 2020) — The lockdown in response to the COVID-19 virus was unprecedented and based on computer models that predicted that up to two million Americans would die of the virus if we didn’t. Now that we have better data on the real mortality rate, we know that this might have been a bit exaggerated. But the science isn’t settled yet, and we still don’t know when life can return to a new normal.
This is why there is so much variation in how various jurisdictions are lifting the shelter in place orders. However, this gives us a large number of real-life examples of how to safely balance public health with economics and access to amenities. Let’s look at some of the best techniques being used in states that are successfully reopening.
Planning the Fallback Options
The emergency hospitals set up to handle the predicted spike in coronavirus patients didn’t see as many as expected. However, the risk remains that a spike in patients in a second outbreak could overwhelm local hospitals. This is why cities like Houston, Texas, are deciding now how they’ll handle a surge in demand for healthcare.
For example, Houston city officials are considering reopening the emergency hospital that was set up in the football stadium. This is certainly better than New York and Pennsylvania’s decision to send recovering coronavirus patients to nursing homes, where they infected both healthcare aides and the most vulnerable population in the country.
Clearing Up the Lines of Communication
The coronavirus pandemic response was marred by everything from bad data out of China and the World Health Organization to conflicting advice on how to protect oneself. Compounding the matter are conflicting rules and regulations intended to limit the public’s risk.
For example, many restaurants are still trying to determine how they can reopen to seated guests under conflicting local, state, and federal guidelines. Harris County’s leadership has set up a simple red, orange, yellow, and green lockdown rating system. The restrictions that go into effect at each stage are clearly defined and consistent. A full stay-at-home order only goes into effect at level 1, the red or severe level.
Creating Universal Rules for Everyone
Reopen protests were driven in part by people unable to access PPP loans or unemployment. It was also driven by the belief that the reopening guidelines were unfair.
For example, you could buy food but not gardening supplies, though both might be available at the same big box store. You could see a hundred gather together for a protest but not a religious service. Or you could see a dentist for emergency care but not an orthodontist.
We’re seeing a shift toward occupancy-based restrictions instead of closures based on industry. By saying nearly every business can open at 50% or 75% occupancy, you give everyone equal access to products and services and ensure that small businesses are on an equal footing with large corporations. Furthermore, they can remain open if the guard rails have to go up by reducing how many people can enter the establishment and return to curbside deliveries instead of closing totally.
Dennis Bonnen’s designation as Speaker of the Texas House makes him one of the most powerful people in the state after the Governor. Speaker Bonnen suggested that voluntarily wearing masks in public is linked to the ability to reopen the economy.
For example, Rep. Bonnen said in a May interview that wearing facemasks should be seen as necessary, whether you visited a beach or restaurant. In the Dennis Bonnen recording, he also encouraged small businesses to require face masks for their customers, and Dennis Bonnen’s wife is in full agreement.
Dennis Bonnen’s viewpoint is in contrast to GOP Chairwoman Cynthia Brehm, who says that wearing a mask should be a choice, despite the fact masks save lives. Uniform public pressure to wear a mask would create consistent public health protective measures even when the rules vary from county to county.
Bringing Social Services Back
Texas has taken the lead in reopening the country. For example, they’ve reopened personal care businesses, and, instead of setting an occupancy limit, they require work stations in hair salons and nail salons to be at least six feet apart. There is also a greater emphasis on personal protective equipment like face masks and face shields than total isolation.
The biggest step toward normalcy is the reopening of summer camps, daycares, and government operations. These often have to operate at 50% capacity and with increased sterilization regimens. But parents generally can’t return to the workplace until they have taken care of their children. The state has issued guidelines for reopening the schools, though they maintain the ability to revert to online schooling if needed.
Local and regional governments have the ability to set rules based on their particular needs. This has created an often contradictory regulatory patchwork but has also given us examples of what does and doesn’t work.