- - Thursday, May 14, 2020

America is reopening, but we’re not doing it well. Most states have lifted their stay-at-home orders, and some states like Florida and Texas are also allowing dine-in restaurants and similar businesses to open before infections subside. It’s crucial that this local approach to controlling the virus continues, since the spread is unequal. But some states are moving too fast and allowing the wrong businesses to reopen, which could lead to more COVID-19 infections and deaths.

My parents’ restaurant is nearing bankruptcy, and my grandfather passed away six weeks ago of COVID-19. I know firsthand the terrible impact of the virus. I desperately want this to be over now. We all want to go back to the way things were, but we can’t move too quickly, or we’ll have both a terrible economy and a high death toll.

As a new study co-authored by my colleagues at the Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise at the University of Kentucky illustrates, there are slow and safe ways states can bring lockdown to an end.

The study concludes that restrictions on some businesses and stay-at-home orders saved America from the brunt of the pandemic through April. If America had followed Sweden’s path, relying largely on voluntary social distancing rather than mandatory lockdowns, the study shows that the U.S. would have suffered 35 times the number of COVID-19 cases by late April — that is, 35 million confirmed cases, rather than the 1 million or so we had by that time. This grim result could have meant hundreds of thousands or even more than a million American deaths, rather than tens of thousands (assuming confirmed cases are equivalent to moderate to severe prevalence of COVID-19 as the study indicates).

This conclusion is based on comparing confirmed cases that America had against those of a model built by using timing differences of government-imposed social distancing actions across all U.S. states and counties to measure their individual impact on virus spread. It accounts for voluntary social distancing that individuals and businesses were already implementing in March.

Unfortunately, it’s clear that only measures like stay-at-home orders and mandatory closing of restaurants and similar businesses had a sizable effect, since they prevented 97 percent of potential cases.

So, is there any business we can allow to reopen safely? 

The study shows that restaurants, bars and other places of entertainment should be the last places to reopen for dine-in, since closing down these places led to great reductions in virus spread. As far as the reopening of other businesses goes, county officials should decide who may be able to safely reopen based on local conditions as public servants who know communities firsthand. The question that officials must answer as we weigh reopening is: Which steps to reopen are least likely to spread the virus and simultaneously most likely provide economic relief for struggling Americans?

This is the best approach to defeat COVID-19 while putting the brakes on our economy’s demise. For instance, upstate New York has a much lower and declining COVID-19 incidence, while New York City was devastated by the virus. As long as travel remains limited between highly-affected regions and those where the virus is under control, upstate New York and other lower-incidence areas should be allowed to reopen much quicker — as it already is. 

Americans should know that “reopening” isn’t a panacea. 

Even if every state lifted all restrictions today, a sizable proportion of Americans would stay at home out of fear, leading millions of businesses to bankruptcy — as states that are reopening have already observed. But, like the study suggests, even among the few customers who would show up, reopening places like restaurants is likely to exponentially grow virus cases. Sweden’s economy, without a mandatory lockdown, is projected to decline more than locked-down neighboring countries, and they’re suffering from a much greater COVID-19 death toll.

To save lives and jobs, then, governors should keep stay-at-home orders in place and restaurants and bars closed for as long as necessary to control the virus spread and delegate reopening authority as much as possible to counties. The federal government, for its part, should do everything in its power to drop regulatory barriers to treatments and vaccines so we can quickly find a cure to this deadly virus.

I feel for everyone who has also lost a family member and for every business owner who has lost their business. This crisis has no easy short-term solutions. Only a vaccine or testing millions per day will definitely solve the crisis. But, in the meantime, we must persist with a slow, careful local approach to restrictions.

• Daniel Di Martino (@DanielDiMartino) is a research associate at the Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise, and a contributor for Young Voices and Dissident.

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