On Phase Two, Cooper should try again

Published May 21, 2020

By Thomas Mills

As North Carolina moves into Phase 2 of reopening the economy, Governor Cooper should ask for a do-over. He should meet with advisors and take another shot. His list of what can open and what cannot is too ambiguous, lacks reason, and ignores more recent information about the virus. It also seems to ignore the only way we return to a level normalcy—protect the vulnerable by tracking and tracing the virus and isolating infected people, not healthy ones. 

I live in a restaurant and bar town. When I meet people for drinks, I often go to Acme or B-Side or Orange County Social Club. On Friday, I can still go to Acme. It’s a restaurant with a bar that makes 50% or more of its revenue from food. I might be able to go to B-Sides. It’s a bar attached to a restaurant that allows people to order from the menu. But I definitely won’t be able to go to OCSC because it’s just a bar and Cooper’s order demands bars stay closed. That’s not right and it’s not good for our community. It will just send people to the bars that are also restaurants.

As for gyms, movie theaters, bowling alleys, playgrounds and museums, the governor should allow them to open with restrictions, directives and warnings. Capacity should be limited in all of these venues and precautions such requiring space between seats or machines would reduce contact. Masks should be required and frequent sanitizing should be mandatory. People should be warned that frequenting those places increases the risk of infection. At some point, we need people to take personal responsibility for their actions. 

 Unfortunately, we’re not ready for crowded entertainment venues such as live music shows and sporting events. While smaller businesses can regulate space, larger venues cannot. They need to wait for more time. 

The information we have about the disease is also changing rapidly. Scientists have better data and more information about how it spreads. We were initially told that it could easily be transmitted through surfaces like door knobs and counter-tops. Now, the CDC says that’s not true. Person-to-person spread is the primary way that the virus is transmitted and it “does not spread easily in other ways.” We should not worry about our children contracting the disease from playground equipment.

 We cannot stay shutdown until the virus is completely under control. That won’t happen until we have a widely produced vaccine or reliable treatment and we’re not likely to have either in the near future. The goal should be to protect the vulnerable. While there are exceptions, the virus is most deadly to people with underlying conditions, including age. We can more easily identify and protect those likely to be harmed from the virus than we can keep it out of the general population for years. 

The failure of the federal government to put in place a testing and tracing program will go down as one of the great public health failures in modern times. Before the virus was widely spread, we might have been able to isolate it and contain it. That didn’t happen. We cannot put that genie back into the bottle. Now, we need to learn how to live with it. Waiting another six weeks won’t reduce infection rates substantially if people aren’t altering their behavior, but it will likely put a lot of small businesses out of business.

If we are opening up nail and hair salons, restaurants and swimming pools, it’s hard to see how most other businesses increase the spread more than those. If we don’t have the testing we need to identify and isolate contagious people, then we need to learn how to alter our behavior to reduce the spread of the virus. The goal should be to protect the people most vulnerable. I’m not callous. I have parents who are both in their mid-80s. I have a brother with a severely compromised immune system and damaged vital organs. 

Finally, if we had a more progressive government that would sustain the shutdown with payments to businesses and people, maybe staying closed for another six weeks would make more sense. We don’t. Republicans aren’t going to raise the revenue necessary to support small businesses or people. Instead, they are already calling for cuts to vital services in the middle of a pandemic. It will take at least one election cycle and probably several to have the type of government that puts people ahead of corporate America. The pandemic has exposed the weakness of our social safety net, but we aren’t going to fix it between now and June 26.