Open or Closed?

Open or Close

Many of us have spent the last month or so in lockdown mode.  There is a virus on the loose and we have all gone to our rooms in an effort to promote social distancing, flattening the curve, and whatever other overused term you may be tired of hearing.

But what comes next?

A great debate rages at the moment over whether we should begin to reopen or whether the current quasi-quarantine should continue.  I have no interest in advocating here, and no interest in getting sucked into the Great Left-Right Political Vortex.  I have, however, listened to and read different viewpoints on this question.  Here are some thoughts and/or questions that have been underappreciated, in my view.

As I recall things, we were told that the activity restrictions that were put in place almost everywhere were necessary for three main reasons (in no particular order): To minimize spread by person-to-person contact, to buy time for the medical community to get a handle on treatments or possibly a vaccine, and to “flatten the curve” so that not everyone gets infected at once, thus overwhelming hospitals’ ability to care for the sickest patients.  Did anyone believe that this was ever going to be an actual solution as opposed to a way to buy a little time?

There is an old political saying about whether something is a real problem: it depends on whose ox is being gored.  Here is the hard fact – some people who contract COVID-19 from this virus are going to die from it.  The number is small (at least relative to the population as a whole), and the high-risk pool is reasonably identifiable, but deaths there will be.  If anyone tries to tell you that they know by how such deaths will increase, be skeptical.  Be assured, however, that the number of deaths is significant now and will surely increase if stay-at-home orders are lifted.

And let us not soft-pedal the serious of a COVID-19 infection.  While the death rate is a low percentage of the population, this rarity doesn’t really matter if you or I are among those who get it.  And those who get it can be in for a nasty time.  Early on I wondered if it would be better to get exposed early, get sick and get over it.  We have more experience with the disease now and that is no longer my opinion.  Illness and death are wrenching things among family and friends and there has already been too much of it.

Here, however, is the other hard fact – with many of us hunkered in our bunkers, the economy is in freefall.  Actually, never mind this talk about this amorphous, conceptual thing called “the economy”.  What is in freefall are the situations of those who have the least to lose.  The restaurant and entertainment industries have largely shuttered.  The dishwasher in the steakhouse kitchen or the server at Denny’s are not working.  Yes, there are unemployment benefits, and yes they have been temporarily bumped up.  But the normal unemployment payment in my state tops out at $390 a week.  Many readers have savings and investments to fall back on, but I have read estimates that 30% of Americans are 1 month from being broke and that over 40% could not hold out beyond 3 months.

It occurs to me that those most aghast at the idea of some kind of re-opening are those in upper income fields who can either work from home, or whose jobs are essential and are not at risk of layoff.  The epidemiologists whose heads appear on television are mostly over sixty and are, on average, more at risk from death should they become infected than they are for losing their homes because their employer closes (whether temporarily or for good).

So which group are you in – the upper-middle-class people still employed, with homes mostly paid down, and/or with (recently depleated) IRAs and a lifetime of savings so see you to retirement?  Or are you 29 years old who has lost a decent job and is in danger of being evicted from your apartment because you can’t pay rent and having your used car repossessed because you can’t make the payment that seemed so reasonable a year ago? Put bluntly, are you one of the ones more likely to catch it and die or are you one of the ones on the verge of losing what little you have?

This choice, to re-open or to remain clamped down, is not a simple 1:1 tradeoff, either.  People have been dying while we are on lockdown, and many businesses are toast even if we re-open.  Who plans to take in a convention this summer?  My city does a lot of convention business, so those hotel and restaurant workers are in trouble no matter what happens.

So let’s review:  People are going to die and people are going to experience financial ruin if we open.  And the same things will happen if we remain closed.  Although not necessarily to the same people.

The fact is that there is a lot more that we do not know right now than what we do know.  The scientific and medical communities do not yet have a handle on this virus.  The business community does not yet know how much activity will return if shut-down orders are relaxed.  Nobody knows what “normal” is going to look like in the next several months no matter what we do.  This experience is going to have to be lived one doctor, one patient, one company, one worker, one family at a time.

Me personally?  I am fine if a lockdown stays in force for awhile.  But here is the disclosure: I am old enough to be more at risk from infection than average and I am still earning the same income while working from home in a legal field that is reasonably well insulated from the ups and downs of the economy.  But as I learned a long time ago, not everyone else is like me.

The only takeaway is that this is one of those times when there are no good options.  Bad things are going to happen to good people no matter what set of rules our various levels of government choose to enforce.  There are hard choices to be made and those who make them will be criticized from multiple sides.  Because there are reasons for either course.

There is only one thing that I am absolutely sure of: When it comes to deciding whether to be open or closed, I am happy that I am not the one with that heavy responsibility.

 

Image Credit:  Vintage signs formerly offered for sale online.

26 thoughts on “Open or Closed?

  1. You are correct as this is a lose-lose for many regardless of outcome. The little bit I’ve seen has included talk about reopening in stages, which to me seems like one of the better compromises (a word sorely lacking in our contemporary vocabulary).

    Even if things were to open to February 1 levels on May 15, I still see many people continuing to do what they’ve been doing – staying at home unless they absolutely have to leave.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I also think different places have done close-downs differently. Ours is reasonably relaxed, but many stores are open. I was able to buy a furnace filter a few days ago, for instance. I suspect you are right that most of us are not planning to cut loose with a wild foray to movie theaters and stadium events, even if those things were allowed. But then those are not things I frequent, so maybe I’m wrong.

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  2. I’m in the “staying at home still making my salary” group for now, although I’m not completely optimistic about my employment outlook later in the year.

    This has been a topic of conversation at our house too. Locally the disease models were based on starting at “Week 1” which is the week where our city sees 100 cases per day. Well we’ve done such a great job at isolation that Week 1 hasn’t happened yet. We were supposed to flatten the curve but if you flatten it too much then it stretches out even longer. We had a somewhat cold hearted article in the paper yesterday by an epidemiologist who stated that the solution here is for people to get sick, and then get better. Again, easier said than done and he didn’t mention that he was going to go intentionally infect himself as soon as he was done writing.

    So as Jason says, I think the least wrong answer is to reopen in stages, with particular attention to keeping the elderly as safe as possible. Most deaths in Canada have been where it got into assisted living homes.

    There’s lots of people working on a vaccine, but it’s a classic case of project management rule #1: You cannot produce a baby in 1 month by impregnating 9 women

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    • Yes, the real answers can be the cold-hearted ones. I suspect that the real actual genuine right answer is that it is just going to have to run its course and burn itself out. Mrs. JPC and I were discussing this the other night, wondering what happened that the 1918-19 Spanish Flu did not stretch into the 1920s. It was probably mostly a buildup of immunity in the population.

      The vaccine thing looks like more hope than reality to me – after all these decades the annual flu vaccine includes a lot of educated guess and is more effective some years than others.

      I have never heard project management rule #1. I like it.

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  3. Good article; I am definitely in favor of getting out of this lockdown and into what Sweden has done (i.e., stay at home if you’re sick or vulnerable but otherwise just be responsible about how you go out, with some restrictions placed on stores and gathering spaces). I don’t pretend to know everything about this situation, but, in order of importance, here’s what I’m seeing:

    1) Antibody testing in multiple areas is pointing towards much more widespread infection and a viral death rate much lower (< 1%) than the initial estimates that inspired these lockdowns in the first place originally said; calling into question how much we would really overwhelm the health care system were the lockdown to lift.

    2) The lockdown could cause as many (if not more) deaths as it saves from the virus. This will not be a good year for suicides and overdoses, both of which are known to increase during economic hardship (massive isolation probably won't help either). And the UN has suggested that millions could die from starvation caused by these economic shutdowns, though that will admittedly probably be more outside the US than inside it. I also heard a good point made on the radio that restrictions made on hospitals during this time (only treating critical cases while elective surgeries and treatments have been postponed) could, in the long run, end up leading to more deaths from things like heart disease that could have been identified and treated earlier had those restrictions not been in place.

    3) The actions of some governors (Whitmer in particular) and some politicians (Pelosi in particular) have me seriously concerned about what kind of permanent power grabs will exist as a result of the shutdown, and whether our rights guaranteed by the constitution really have any meaning anymore, or if they are now more like privileges that can be summarily suspended by declaring that they can't be exercised in the interest of public health. Even Holcomb hasn't convinced me that what he's doing is really "constitutional" as the framers of the constitution would have envisioned it. Ironically enough, while I'm not a Trump fan; he has, at the very least, continued to keep re-opening in the public conversation, which I appreciate at the moment.

    I have had many, many conversions with my father — whose is in your age bracket — about this shutdown, and I do worry about whether or not he would survive catching the virus. I have also talked with people who had pre-existing conditions and are more vulnerable to the virus than I am, which helps me recognize how lucky I am to be in good health. I don't want people to die unnecessarily from this and I do think measures can and should be put into place to mitigate that.

    That said — and I do acknowledge that this is a highly personal and arguably self-centered point of view — my generation and those younger than me are going to spend a heck of lot more time living in the world we make from this than the (mostly older) folks making decisions about lockdowns now. And if the world they make is one of serious economic depression (and whatever deaths result from that); a destroyed sense of community (it's difficult to feel close to people when everyone must stay at least six feet apart and avoid any physical contact); and a government that has back-doored itself into something difficult to distinguish from tyranny… well, I guess I don't if that's much of a reward for "flattening the curve." Not being in danger of dying from the virus is only worthwhile to the extent that there is a world worth living in. I'm kind of worried about that at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You raise some interesting questions or observations I have not heard voiced up to now. Perhaps because all of the talking heads I see on TV (or whose opinion pieces I read) are generated by people much closer to my age than to yours. You rightly note that there are many unintended consequences to this quarantine, including domestic violence, suicide and drug abuse. At some point these will cease to be a necessary tradeoff for virus defense – if we are not already there. Related is that we recently lost a young police officer to a shooting during a domestic disturbance. Such a disturbances happened before our quarantine, but it is naive to suppose that instances have not increased.

      These many effects (both intended and unintended) caused now will definitely leave their marks for a long time to come. And you are right that your generation will have to deal with these effects for much longer than mine will.

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    • I had an additional thought – you also make me wonder if this is an example of we baby boomers turning the debate and the policies in ways that benefit us disproportionately to our numbers. It would not surprise me if there were more GenX and Millennials out working every day in those “essential positions” or losing their jobs while we Boomers are either retired or working safely from home.

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  4. I completely agree with your closing sentence. I am also very glad to not be one of the ones with that heavy responsibility of leading a municipality, province, state, or country through these difficult times. Even greater decisions lie ahead than the ones that were made previously.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I suppose all we can ask is that these leaders get more right than they do wrong, and even then what is right and what is wrong depends on who is being asked.

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  5. Having had many hot debates with a sibling who works in the now tanked Canadian oil industry (an industry which was struggling anyway), and who is adamantly opposed to any kind of lockdown, I have said since the early days, that I would not want to be a politician right now having to make those kinds of decision. It’s easy to criticize, but hindsight is always 20/20. It’s up to the individual provinces here to decide when to reopen, and while more densely populated Ontario and Quebec have been particularly hard hit, some of the more rural prairie provinces notably Saskatchewan and Manitoba have had few cases 200 to 300, and few deaths. Saskatchewan is planning a staged reopen in May, so it will be interesting to observe how that goes. Difficult decisions for difficult times.

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    • The other factor is the antibody testing studies being done in the general population in NY and CA…if 1 our of 5 New Yorkers have already been exposed and are not sick, and the virus was circulating earlier than we realized, then some degree of herd immunity may be already present. I believe that is what happened with the Spanish Flu – by the time 30-50% of the population had been exposed it burned itself out…..but that was a different type of virus. I do find it puzzling when they report stats such as 480 workers in a meat packing plant are infected, they never say how many of those are actually sick? How many are asymptomatic carriers, how many had a mild case and recovered in a few days and how many were deathly ill and in hospital? Of course part of the fear factor is no one knows what category you’re going to end up in, but it would be nice to see some stats on that.

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      • Exactly. Some have not been exposed. Some have been exposed but show no symptoms yet. Some have been exposed by will show no symptoms at all. Some will be infected and get mildly sick. Some will be infected and get very sick. Some will become infected, get very sick and die. There are many, many places along this spectrum. It will be helpful when we can stop trying to make decisions based on trying to make comparisons between badly defined inputs.

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    • Yes, we both live in large countries where there are tremendous disparities in how the virus has affected the populations. In the US it is clear that most of the “important people” live on one of the coasts in the major metropolitan areas that have been very badly affected. Those of us in less populated/affected areas have had different experiences.

      Back in my undergrad Econ classes, just about every idea begun with “assuming all else is equal . . . . ” The problem is that all else is not equal, with an uncountable number of variables floating around. I think that with limited exceptions, “command and control” is not as effective as giving responsible citizens the latitude to keep themselves (and therefore others) safe. Do we live in such a society now? Another good question.

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      • Yes I did notice that the midwestern states do not seem to have the same level of infection rates. Here in Ontario, Toronto is known as “The Centre of the Universe” as the rest of the province tends not to count…..

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  6. It is a difficult decision to make. Our provincial government has announced that we will be reopening in stages, starting May 4, beginning with secondary medical services, (optometrists, dentists, physiotherapists, etc.) but with regulations regarding protective practices in place. We have only a few active cases, and I’m glad our premier is being cautious, lest we have an outbreak.

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    • The medical closings are interesting – I had a dentist appointment scheduled, and you would think that with disinfectants, masks and gloves everything could proceed. But I guess not. My daughter is a therapist in a residential mental facility and has gone in to work every day.
      Being the capital city, we have a good number of cases for our area, but we are nowhere near as bad as in larger cities or in the coastal hotspots.

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  7. Very interesting thoughts JP – our Governor just extended the stay-home/stay-safe Order until May 15th, but permitted some formerly non-critical services (landscaping, lawn cutting) to proceed effective today and people may use motor boats and golf (no carts though) and buy gardening merchandise (previously cordoned off in the big-box stores). Still only essential workers though. Like you, it does not affect me since I work from home anyway, so we’re free to say extend the Order as much as you want- the poor people struggling with rent, student loans, food, utility payments, etc. must be beside themselves. I am lucky my home was paid off long ago by my parents and my car is 11 years old and paid off. I believe experts who say the economy will not be better until next year. Worrisome to me is what I heard today and that was that having the Coronavirus does not guarantee future immunity – so be glad you didn’t go out and get the virus like parents once encouraged their kids to get the childhood diseases to “get them over with” – lucky you didn’t choose that route. Very scary times we live in right now. Our Governor had two lawsuits filed last week, one was to permit a lawn-cutting service to operate and one was someone’s rights had been trampled on.

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    • It has become very clear that “experts” are still struggling with the learning curve for this virus. I have lost track of the new revelations on how it spreads and behaves. I don’t doubt that they will get there at some point, but I am not expecting that point to come in the next week or two.

      I have understood that Michigan has had one of the toughest responses. Blocking off some aisles in some stores that are otherwise open seems an interesting choice. I would think that gardening would be one activity that one could safely practice while being distant from neighbors.

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      • Yes, the learning curve and new information every day by those “experts” is what is so worrisome to me.

        Not being able to access gardening supplies when people had time on their hands was one of the biggest bugaboos. At one point, the Governor, having heard or read the gripes, tried to explain that the areas of the store were cordoned off as they were non-essential items and given the fact that Michigan was 40 degrees or lower then, you would not be planting seeds or doing yard cleanup/mowing for a while yet. She did not appease the masses with that statement. The primary reason was to keep store employees from needing to sanitize that part of the store as it encompasses a large area. We now can get these supplies, but I think nursery plants and flowers are treated differently – perhaps the store clerks bringing items to your car trunk unless she modifies the Order again – rules/regs are constantly evolving. I figured that she’d loosen the nursery restrictions before Mother’s Day. When I had my garden out back, before the Polar Vortex of early 2014 ravaged most of the plants/bushes, the best selection for annuals and hanging baskets was the week preceding Mother’s Day (even if they spend a good deal of their time in the garage until it warmed up).

        Today was the first day that Michigan saw the stats go down for deaths/cases in many weeks. The second field hospital will only be set up for 250 beds instead of the 1,000 originally slated and this is since the 1,000-bed complex (formerly Cobo Hall) is hardly occupied.

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  8. I don’t disagree with anything you say here, JP—
    except perhaps for your bifurcated examples. There are so many different categories of people being hurt.
    But I assume those were intended as examples.

    I just wish we could find unity of purpose and resolve—and receive honest reports about what is really happening from apolitical sources.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, my examples were only random ones that popped into my head at the right time.

      Sadly, apolitical sources are in short supply these days. Everyone seems so dug in to their political thing that everyone is finding something useful in this crisis.

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  9. Honestly? I try, unsuccessfully, not to worry about things I can’t control. We’re working from home and, like almost everyone, our investments have taken a hit. But we were never big spenders and as long as we can meet our basic needs in the future, I am fine with that. But my kids are both in fields that may never be the same again, so I worry about what their future looks like.

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    • Yes, it is the young ones having their world turned upside down. I wonder what the world is going to look like if they inherit a country up to its eyeballs in debt after our generation has sunk all of its savings into nursing home bills.

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