Dan Rodricks: Maryland governor’s shutdown of distant campgrounds and other businesses might seem unfair, but unfair is saving lives

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The thought expressed out loud Monday night by the former governor of New Jersey might have been the most callous of the Trump era: “Everybody wants to save every life they can, but the question is, towards what end, ultimately?”

I cannot imagine a normal person — someone humane, rational and blessed with children and grandchildren — putting those words in that order, arguing that saving lives in the coronavirus pandemic should be secondary to saving the nation’s economy.

But that was Chris Christie, arguing on CNN that we should accept the risk of illness or death from a novel virus and reopen the country. “We have to stand up for the American way of life,” he said.

It’s the rare public man who can attain that level of cold. Most of us are still trying to grasp 70,000 deaths in a matter of weeks. I see it as a raw number, not as a percentage of population, or a factor in some Dr. Strangelove calculation. Seventy thousand deaths should humble and silence everyone. We should sit and think about it and mourn. Instead, we have Chris Christie saying we should get used to deaths — perhaps 3,000 a day — and get back to work. I’m surprised he didn’t add a bonus line from Dickens: “And decrease the surplus population!”

We should make no apology for accepting the advice of medical scientists over politicians in an international health crisis. Angry mobs of inconvenienced and low-information Trump/reopen supporters are not helping us get through this mess any faster. They might be making it worse.

In the midst of all this noise came a reasonable challenge to the shutdown from the woods of western Maryland, and it forced me to think things through again.

It was a letter from the owner of a private campground in Allegany County. She argued that hers is the kind of business that could reopen in a safe way.

“We are literally sandwiched between the C&O Canal National Historical Park and Green Ridge State Forest,” wrote Donna B. Wallizer of the Little Orleans Campground & Park Area. “We have an excellent fishing stream, Fifteen-Mile Creek, running through our property for nearly a mile, along with being a quarter-mile from the Potomac River for additional fishing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking and biking. We are also a quarter-mile from the new Western Maryland Rail Trail western terminus, a 27-mile paved hiking/biking trail that runs on the old railroad bed to Fort Frederick.

“We have a largely seasonal base, campers who rent by the yearly season and are self-contained with access to water, electricity and sewer. We are located on 200 acres with ample opportunity to walk a dog or yourself in safety. As of now, even these campers, who have their RVs and individual sites set up … are not being allowed to access their sites. Most of these site-holders are Marylanders, but some are from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and elsewhere.

“When sunshine and fresh air is the goal, it is incomprehensible that an outdoor business such as ours is still closed and restricting citizens from a minimum of three states access to their leased sites.”

Wallizer said that most of her customers “come here with groceries already purchased from their home stores as we have only three dining establishments within an eight-mile radius.”

I sympathize with Wallizer. She has a business to run. She can’t imagine how opening her campground would do any harm. Other Marylanders from suburban and rural areas feel similarly, and many of them were fans of Gov. Larry Hogan until he shut down nonessential businesses across the state and asked us to stay at home as much as possible.

Hogan is a Republican and a commonsense businessman. He takes advice from medical experts. One of them, Tom Inglesby, is the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Inglesby worries that the country will see waves of new cases this summer and fall because some states have started lifting restrictions. “Nothing has changed in the underlying dynamics of this virus,” Inglesby said on Sunday. “If we stop social distancing altogether tomorrow, we would recreate the conditions that existed in the country in February and March.”

Still, what’s the problem with opening a campground 120 miles from Baltimore? It seems unfair to keep it closed.

But, it’s all unfair. It’s unfair that we’re in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century. It’s unfair that the Trump administration got a late start in acknowledging the coronavirus threat. It’s unfair that, lacking a national strategy to combat the virus, the states have had to scramble for protective gear and tests. It’s unfair that millions are unemployed, being furloughed or having their salaries cut. It’s unfair that many Americans won’t see their mothers on Mother’s Day.

But we’re all in the great unfairness together. Viruses generally don’t care where we live.

Fresh air and sunshine is good. But the problem with the Little Orleans campground, or any place, for that matter, is that we have to drive there. We have to refill gas tanks, maybe get a meal, use a restroom, do all kinds of things that risk disease transmission. The point of stay-at-home is to interrupt that cycle. It was put in place to prevent catastrophe. Is there any doubt that it saved lives? Any doubt that we’re better off with a governor who sees that as a priority?



Dan Rodricks is a long-time columnist for The Baltimore Sun.


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