Reopening Is Not a Failure

Florida governor Ron DeSantis in Cape Canaveral, Fla., May 30, 2020 (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The coronavirus hasn’t gone away.

As the Northeast, the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. for months, has seen steep, persistent declines in confirmed cases, other parts of the country have spiked. A month or so ago, most of the increased cases were a function of increased testing. Now, states like Florida, Texas, and Arizona have seen worrying increases in their positivity rates — the percentage of tests that are positive — in a sign of accelerating community spread.

The media’s tone about this trend is, of course, apocalyptic, with many commentators portraying the Republican governors of these states as callous extremists hell-bent on reopening, come what may. The fact is that states all over the country have been reopening, and California and North Carolina, both with Democratic governors, have seen spikes in new confirmed cases, too (although not dramatically increasing positivity rates). It’s also irksome to see these governors depicted as villains at the same time New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is lionized as a hero, despite New York’s vastly higher death rate and his fateful decision to send COVID-positive patients into nursing homes.

The reality is that Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, and Doug Ducey are reasonable, public-spirited men who never said they would insist on full reopening regardless of the consequences. Abbott has closed bars back down and further restricted the capacity of restaurants. He’s also stopped elective surgeries again in hard-hit areas and will allow counties to mandate wearing masks in public. DeSantis, too, has shuttered bars, while Florida localities are tightening up again on some restrictions. Ducey is hitting the brakes on the state’s reopening process.

All of this seems prudent. They are following the evidence and adjusting to new data. We like the local watering hole as much as the next guy, but if bars are contributing to the surge of cases, it only makes sense to close them again. Bars and restaurants also should not be allowed to flout state and local guidelines. And masks, which more Florida localities are mandating, are a mild mitigation measure compared with shutting business and telling people to stay at home.

The good news is that in none of these places have we yet seen a spike in deaths commensurate with the spike in cases. This may simply reflect the fact that deaths are a lagging indicator. But the evidence suggests that we are seeing a younger cohort of people getting the virus. In Florida, the median age of the positive cases has drastically declined, from 65 years old in March to 35 years old now. It looks as though older, more vulnerable people have continued to be cautious about the virus, while younger, less vulnerable people are being less careful. Although not ideal, this is better than the alternative. The virus is unpredictable, but younger people are less likely to get seriously ill and die.

None of this means that reopening is a failure. The promise of reopening wasn’t that there would be no additional cases — most people conceded that there would be. The promise of reopening was that we could begin a necessary return to normal life, while managing new outbreaks, hitting the brakes when and where needed, and having plans in place to keep hospitals from coming close to getting overwhelmed, as almost happened during the worst period in New York.

This is what Florida, Texas, and Arizona are trying to do, and we should all be rooting for their success.


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