Column: You may need to put your summer plans on hold
Some time soon, if we’re lucky, the novel coronavirus will look as if it’s being tamed. New infections and deaths, which are still rising in much of the country, will begin to recede.
So I spent the last few days reading half a dozen proposals by public health professionals on how to end the nationwide shutdown. They made for sobering reading.
Many of us have harbored the pleasant illusion that life would return to normal this summer: the sun would come out, the deaths would end, and baseball season would joyfully begin.
Alas, it’s not going to work that way. The New Normal, the coronavirus aftermath, won’t feel very normal at all.
More people will return to work, but not everyone. Businesses will be urged, or required, to bring only some employees back at first, to avoid too many people working near one another.
Stores and restaurants will reopen in stages, but they’ll still be required to keep customers six feet from one another. Cashiers and waiters will wear masks and gloves.
Gatherings of more than 10 people will still be banned, although the rule could eventually be relaxed to 50 — but movies, concerts, music festivals and sports events are out.
Schools may reopen, but only if the scientists are satisfied that children, who mostly seem unaffected by the virus, won’t carry it from one house to another.
Testing will become commonplace. Temperature checks will be routine at entrances to buildings and airplanes.
Eventually, almost everyone will be tested. One proposal calls for everyone in the country to be tested every 14 days, a massive and possibly impossible goal. Some employers may test their workers as a condition of keeping their jobs.
Many employees, including anyone over 60 or with health problems, will be urged to continue working from home if they can. Some will choose to continue some version of sheltering at home in the interest of self-preservation.
Governments may have to pay benefits to those who lose their income because they test positive. Otherwise, sick people won’t come forward to get diagnosed.
Travel will be complicated. Some states already impose self-isolation orders on visitors from New York; that system is likely to spread.
Foreign travel will be even more difficult: other countries may require proof of immunity to enter or put visitors under formal quarantine.
State and local governments will try to isolate new cases and find everyone who has been in contact with a new patient. Apple and Google are working on a smartphone app that would allow people who have been in close proximity to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus to be notified and take appropriate measures.
And the economy is unlikely to bounce back, at least not quickly. The International Monetary Fund sees the U.S. economy shrinking by almost 6% this year, its worst contraction since the Great Depression in the 1930s, and it doesn’t forecast a recovery until next year.
Some version of those restrictions will remain until a vaccine can be developed, tested and deployed — mid-2021 by the earliest.
President Trump has framed the problem of relaunching the economy around setting a date for a grand reopening. The health experts say, explicitly or implicitly, that’s a good way to kill thousands of people between now and election day — and tank the economy a second time.
I found a rough consensus on those ideas among a wide range of medical experts. Their road maps for reopening the economy differ on details, but not the basic principles.
First is that any restart needs to be based on hard data. Have infections and deaths declined for at least 14 days, preferably more? Can hospitals handle the patients without crisis standards of care? Have their tapped-out supplies of masks and medicines been replenished?
Are test kits available to test everyone with symptoms, and to begin testing those who don’t have symptoms? And do we have a system to monitor potential new cases and warn people they were in contact with?
None of those conditions has been fulfilled.
“We’re not there yet,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told the Associated Press on Tuesday. “Maybe next month.”
Even then, he added, the best that can be aimed at is “a gradual reentry of some sort of normality.”
Once the relaunch begins, there will still be plenty of problems to work out. Global supply chains for medicine, hospital supplies and test kits will be under strain for months.
To keep the virus down, epidemiologists want to build a test-and-trace system that doesn’t yet exist — many more centers for testing, plus a massive effort to alert people.
The unresolved issues include privacy (who will know if you’ve tested positive?) and civil liberties (how far can the government go in ordering you to quarantine?).
And how will we address our newest class difference: proximity? Will we offer special protections to workers whose jobs require them to be near other people — bus drivers, retail employees, barbers and beauticians?
Yes, the economy needs to reopen as fast as possible. But is it unfair to notice that many of those insisting on an early relaunch are corporate CEOs, investors and politicians who get to choose how close they stand to their co-workers, customers and constituents?
“You don’t make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline,” Fauci said.
In some quarters, that was interpreted as a political statement. To me, it sounded more like a weary, experienced observation of fact.
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