Michael Smolens: Reopening talk moves away from partisan framing

Tribune Content Agency

As more of America is poised to start further reopening the economy amid the COVID-19 crisis, the partisan fury over the moves may be starting to subside.

Amid debate and controversy, some Republican governors have taken steps to allow businesses to reopen. Now they are being joined by some of their Democratic counterparts.

Even Gov. Andrew Cuomo has raised the prospect of allowing limited business reopenings in upstate New York, far from New York City, the nation’s coronavirus hot spot.

The dispute over such action doesn’t seem to care about political party. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, this week started a phased-in, limited lifting of restrictions and faced tough questions about whether the move will further compromise public safety, possibly contributing to more deaths.

“We’re really worried about a second spike,” Polis told CNN. He said that’s why his administration has been “laser focused” on sustaining social distancing over months, which will help the state meet health goals and revive the economy.

“Otherwise, if we can’t succeed in doing that on an ongoing basis, stay-at-home was for nothing,” he said.

That’s not to say partisanship over the coronavirus response will disappear. President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have questioned whether states should get continued federal emergency assistance, particularly those controlled by Democrats. Studies show that several Democratic states send more money to the federal government than they get back.

The question of whether any state is lifting restrictions at the right time or in the right way looms large, but the answer won’t really be known for weeks after stay-at-home orders are loosened. Resurgence of COVID-19 is a threat, while it’s unclear how much economic activity will be generated under these plans.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom this week said metrics are showing progress on combating the outbreak, and he laid out steps aimed at reopening businesses — and schools — but did not give a specific timeline. He said science and data, not politics, would drive decisions.

“The hope and expectation is that we’ll be in a position in a number of weeks to have meaningful modifications,” he said.

Conversely, he has suggested stay-at-home policies could become tougher if some Californians ignore social-distancing guidelines, as he said beachgoers did last weekend in some areas, particularly Newport Beach.

All that should move things away, at least a bit, from the partisan prism through which much of the shutdown debate has been viewed. Attention has focused on Trump, protesters and GOP governors all advocating a more rapid reengagement of the economy.

But they haven’t been the only ones.

Early on, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and more recently Times columnist Bret Stephens, argued that reopening the economy soon is essential not just for commerce but for the welfare of individuals. They both talked with some health experts who agreed that a Great Depression-like environment was not only detrimental to personal finances but long-term health because of stress-related illness, psychological depression and suicide.

“The public conversation needs to be about the value of human life in its totality,” Dr. Tomislav Mihaljevic, CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, told Stephens.

But complex strategies must be in place for a reopening to work.

Mihaljevic said guidelines should be tailored to regional differences — such as those between New York City and upstate New York — and among individuals, with people who have underlying conditions facing more restrictions and receiving greater care.

Health experts still say far more testing and tracing of those who have had contact with infected people is needed to reopen safely.

The discussion has moved away from an all-or-none proposition to focus on developing nuanced guidelines, along with determining which businesses are in the best position to reopen safely sooner.

States are doing it differently. Georgia has received much attention, and criticism, for moving faster than most. This week, in-person dining was allowed at restaurants, though that’s not a mandatory order and a number of eateries said they were staying closed.

Newsom said he will continue to hold off until there’s assurance that restrictions can be lifted safely. But he also said “regional conditions” would be taken into consideration, a nod to some rural counties asking to reopen sooner because they have had few or no cases of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, six San Francisco Bay-area counties said they were extending stay-at-home orders through the month of May. In their announcement, the counties said some restrictions could still be loosened, but gave no details.

Colorado has a multistep process. This week, businesses can provide curbside pickups, in-person real estate showings can take place and elective surgeries will be allowed. In a few days, in-store retail will open and more services will be available, such as individual personal-training sessions.

On Monday, larger workplaces can open but with only 50% of the in-person workforce at a time. Employees will have their temperature taken regularly and be checked for symptoms. By mid-May, restaurants and bars can reopen, but no specific date was given.

The changes will be delayed in the harder-hit Denver area, where stay-at-home orders will remain in place for the time being.

While many cheer the openings, there’s a palpable sense of risk moving forward.

“We’re being told the safest thing we can do is stay home,” Grayson Landauer, a laid-off coffee bar barista at Denver International Airport told Westword, a Denver-based publication. “ … We shouldn’t have to die for the economy.”

The politics of reopening during the coronavirus crisis may be changing but some basic fears remain.



Michael Smolens is a columnist at The San Diego Union-Tribune.


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