The Risk of Re-opening Too Quickly

I keep up on world news and have been following COVID-19 since the early days in China. As this virus has spread across the globe, the one thing that has appeared to slow the contagion from spreading like wildfire is “lockdowns.” China had a very strict lockdown in Wuhan for four months- nothing like the “lockdown” that we have here in New Orleans where there are hundreds of people running, biking in parks, getting food to go from restaurants etc. The European countries that have been hit the hardest by this virus have been very good at keeping a vast majority of its citizens to stay in their homes for several months now. They recognized that it was better to be inconvenienced to help their health care systems deal with the flood of COVID patients. I am inspired by the videos of people singing from their balconies in the evening or cheering frontline healthcare workers. They recognize that they are all in this together. First off, they do have national governments who have provided a temporary universal basic income, which had been gaining support in light of the number of jobs that will be lost in the next ten years due to automation- a process that will now be implemented faster due to COVID-19. Secondly, they have suspended rent and mortgage payments and have national health care. Basically, their leaders told them that the basics will be taken care of and everyone working together will minimize the consequences that the virus has created. The death toll is staggering but it would have been much worse if those societies had put profits over people.

We are now seeing a movement to open back up now, just seven weeks after our self-isolation began. Many of these protesters are members of the Tea Party Movement (by their own declaration), libertarian philosophies or Koch brothers’ motivation. In some places such as Michigan, those stay at home policies have barely been in effect for five weeks. Many are inspired by tweets from the President or other conservative elected officials/television personalities. Some, undoubtedly, are genuinely concerned about being able to make their rent/mortgage payments. Since conservative legislators has been trying to undo what safety nets that were available in this country since the Reagan administration, they are right that many will be financially impacted for a long time by this crisis. However, many of those fears could have been mitigated by a more robust safety net. There is no science to back these calls for reopening, just a call to get back to normal which I hate to say isn’t happening anytime soon.

Our economy has many moving parts, but consumer confidence is a major factor, no matter what your local/state/federal elected official says about opening if the consumers don’t have faith, they will not leave their homes nor spend money to get the economy moving again. I’ve read that many in the movement to reopen are small business owners who fear that they may lose their businesses (a legitimate fear) makes me think that possibly the stimulus bill should have been more robust than the $385 billion (out of $2.2 trillion) and made sure that those funds made it to real small businesses rather than the smaller corporations that didn’t get the federal bailouts like the airline industry received. There is some comfort that some publicly traded companies are returning that money like Ruth’s Chris and Shake Shack. My social media feed is filled with small business owners who were not beneficiaries of these federal funds. Hopefully, soon more local small businesses will get the interest free SBA loans. I am thankful that the House stood its ground by making sure that individuals received added unemployment benefits (until July 25) in addition to the other aspects of the stimulus package. Senator Lindsey Graham recently stated that those added benefits would “be extended over his dead body;” well sir, I doubt the House will not let you give more corporate stimulus without thinking about the plight of working Americans.

From a local perspective, things are looking grim for the remainder of this year no matter if the state opens or not. Almost all the conventions have cancelled well into 2021. That was before all the festivals cancelled. My wife and I both work in the hospitality industry. Our jobs have laid us off for the foreseeable future, that is just a simple fact. There will not be tens of thousands of tourists and conventioneers flocking to our city every week and there will not be until at least 2021. The oil and gas industries are in dire straits with no end in sight. Even the shipping ports are seeing traffic grind to a halt. These industries are the base of our economy and none of them are returning to normal any time soon. So, if the movement to reopen gets their wish, how many businesses will reopen prematurely and go out of business due to lack of consumers? Most of the businesspeople I know have been optimistically hoping for a Fall reopening of the economy, because they know there is not a base of clients that can sustain their businesses until at least that time. Restaurants operate on a razor thin profit line and can not operate with a profit if they operate at 50% capacity. Of course, many entrepreneurs in this industry will find a new way of doing business and some will succeed, but most will not. A vast majority of restaurants and hotels in New Orleans need those tens of thousands of tourists to keep their doors open. An example of this was the way businesses in Algiers suffered without an operating ferry system. If you are a business owner on the front lines of the reopen movement, lead by example and work the positions in your company with the most person to person interactions. If you are not willing to do that, you should not make your employees do it. Also, remember that since businesses were closed down by the government, unemployment insurance is being paid for by the state government and not by the business owners; however, if they reopen and realize in a few weeks that they cannot operate at a profit and have to lay off workers again then those businesses will be responsible for unemployment benefits. What we are seeing in Southern Europe is that just now restaurants can do to go food which is something we never ended here.

Before we reopen our economy, we must make sure that we have adequate testing set up in addition to public health teams that can trace infected persons interactions with people to stymie the further spread of the virus. At this point, I do not see Louisiana having the resources to do the widespread testing in place nor the public health resources to effectively trace. We need to see how effective the antibodies test are and have those tests widely available (there are still doubts how long antibodies are an effective deterrent to reinfection). To move forward without these measures in place puts the health of our community and the economy in jeopardy. A reopening without the proper protocols in place is reckless and shortsighted.

As a student of history, the last pandemic to look for guidance from was the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. Cities that loosened up their social distancing protocols early, like in Philadelphia, paid a hefty price in human carnage for their actions. Cities such as Saint Louis maintained their social distancing and saved countless lives. During that pandemic the second wave was brutal, and my fear is a quick, nonscientific based opening could quite possibly recreate that outcome. Some of our neighboring states are opening back up and I believe the most prudent action would be to see how those actions work out before we also open back up. The Governors of those states have made their working class the canary in the coalmine and we will see how those actions work out for their citizens.

If you want to go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, as it pertains to how the virus evolved (or “was released”), that is a right you have as an American. So, this is a Chinese move to dislodge the United States as a global leader? Recognizing that tens of millions of our countrymen and women are not benefitting from our “booming economy”? That those same people are two paychecks away from being homeless? That since we made healthcare a for profit industry and we do not have the capacity to deal with a pandemic? That even with the Affordable Care Act many Americans still can’t afford insurance? Knowing our culture well enough to know that radical elements in our society would demand to end public health measures? That other nations would follow their public health experts while they watch the United States (or regions within) not follow the experts?

We pride ourselves in New Orleans on being an international city. We must look at these cities in Europe to see how they slowly reopen their economies. Trying to rush the timetable without scientific and medical protocols in place is a recipe for true disaster. It can be a lot worse than what we are currently experiencing. Up until the Passover/Easter holidays we were very successful in limiting our time outside the home but since then, we have been losing our focus. Maybe I’m lucky that I mentally prepared myself for three months at home (based on what we were seeing elsewhere) but we must all take a more long-term vision for the disruptions that this virus has befallen us. We, as a nation, are not a patient people; our consumerism has led us to an unnatural state of instant gratification. This paradigm is not well suited for the current climate we are experiencing. We have a long anti-intellectual mindset in our nation and have been seeing the consequences for a long time. For example, climate change responses comes to mind. People will want to come back to New Orleans and they will when they feel it safe to do so but we need to lead the way to a successful recovery and not make rash decisions.

We all look forward to when we can have a sense of normalcy in our lives again. We look forward to going back to work and being ambassadors for our city. We will have second lines, concerts, festivals and dinners at our favorite restaurants. But my family is willing to hold out until the medical experts say that it is reasonably safe to do so and not put so many working folk’s health at risk in a rush to grasp an old reality that ain’t there no more. Week seven is challenging, but not as challenging as starting over at day one again.

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