There is an abundance of bad signs about the status of the coronavirus pandemic in states like Georgia and Texas such as the fact that confirmed coronavirus cases continue to increase statewide and their testing rates are some of the worst in the country. Still, both states’ governors have made the bold, extremely questionable decision to “reopen.”
This is extremely confusing for state residents, who see the coronavirus pandemic continuing to surge throughout the rest of the country, and can read the data that shows the virus likely hasn’t yet peaked where they live. And it’s a decision that has dire consequences for business owners and anyone reliant on government assistance, which could be effectively shut off now that employment is, technically, possible. But it’s also likely that more states will follow suit, going rogue and lifting stay-at-home orders so early that even the president thinks it’s a bad idea. VICE spoke with infectious disease specialists and residents of Georgia and Texas about how to best handle being the guinea pigs of the pandemic.
Is it safe to go back to “normal”?
According to Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist, it’s still way too early to attempt to resume our old daily routines. “Just because these restrictions are being relaxed doesn’t mean there aren’t cases in the community, but rather that cases have dropped below a threshold that allows for public health and healthcare capacity to manage them,” Popescu told VICE. “There are still cases of COVID-19 in the community, and we’re still struggling to respond through testing, tracing, and prevention.”
But neither state seems to have actually done that. According to a report from the New York Times, Georgia in particular has one of the country’s lowest testing rates and experienced a steady climb in COVID-19 cases leading up to its reopening on April 24. The Times also reported that Georgia’s population has particularly high rates of diabetes and heart and lung disease compared with the rest of the country—conditions that its own health department list as risk factors for contracting the virus.
Per a report from Texas Monthly, Texas isn’t in much better shape, with its own uptick in cases leading up to reopening and one of the worst rates of testing per capita in the country, second only to Kansas. Gov. Greg Abbott has pointed to the state’s declining hospitalization rates as cause for optimism. But as Texas Monthly points out, COVID-19’s two-week incubation period makes that number less than reliable: “Fourteen days is important because it is believed the virus can incubate for two weeks before making someone ill, and asymptomatic individuals may transmit the virus. Think about this: anyone who gets sick now was infected after the shelter-at-home orders took effect at the end of March.”
OK, I’m still working from home, but I want to dip my toes in the real world again. What kind of precautions should I take?
To be honest, if you don’t have to leave home to go to work, you should probably still just… stay home as much as possible.
Popescu and Kelly Hills, a bioethicist who specializes in quarantine, agreed that trying to maintain social distancing as much as possible, limiting trips to grocery stores and other shopping to off-hours, and staying vigilant about personal hygiene will all be necessary to keeping COVID-19 cases down as “normal” life resumes. “As states reopen, we still need to practice infection control measures and work to break the chain of infection to continue the downward trend in cases,” Popescu said.
She also suggested checking in with newly open establishments about any new measures they’ll be implementing. “If you’re hoping to go to a restaurant or gym, ask what they’re doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in their business, and when there, try to maintain social distancing and use hand hygiene,” she said.
And even if the people around you aren’t maintaining the same degree of caution you are, stick to your guns—after all, it’s your health and it’s worth advocating for your own needs, whether that means continuing to sport a mask even though it’s no longer mandated, or (POLITELY) asking someone to give you a little space in the Starbucks line.
What if I’m the one trying to reopen a business?
The most dubious aspect of the decision to reopen prematurely is that it shifts the burden of safety completely over to business owners, who now have to make impossible decisions. Hills said that small business owners must ask themselves a series of questions before reopening to determine whether or not they will be able to implement safety measures that can help minimize the possibility of COVID-19 transmission.
“Can you make ‘one way’ lanes like some grocery stores have, so that people can’t pass each other in the aisles as easily? Can you limit the number of people in the store to a “safe” number, less than your maximum occupant capacity?” Hills said. “Can you make sure your employees can stay at least six feet away from customers? Do you have the ability (resources, including supplies) to sanitize your store at least once a day, if not more?” If the answer to any of these questions is no, that’s a bad sign.
Mary Rose Wiley, the owner of Open Invite Shop in Austin, told VICE that she has been weighing all of these measures, and ultimately decided to wait to reopen her store, which caters mainly to foot traffic that simply doesn’t exist right now.
“It’s honestly an impossible situation, because I don’t want to see the city and state go into a complete economic shutdown, but I also don’t want to be the person who decides that I care more about my shop’s success than the safety of others,” Wiley said. “Right now, I’m able to operate by putting loan payments on hold and asking for rent delay; I have the ability to be like, I can’t be open, I can’t pay these bills. With the economy reopening, if I can’t lean on government shutdown, am I supposed to be able to pay all these things?”
Wiley is the sole employee of her shop, but owners of businesses that employ people are in an even more precarious situation. Open and honest discussions between business owners and the people they employ are essential right now. It’s a good idea to ask your staff what they need to feel safe to return to work, and be honest with them about how you’re feeling, too. Hills also suggested business owners check in with their insurers before making any major reopening moves. “I’d definitely recommend discussing it with your insurance agent, to see what your liability is for opening,” she said.
And if you’re an employee feeling pushed back to work in unsafe conditions, know that you’re not alone. According to Ask a Manager’s Allison Green, you might have recourse in the form of filing an HR complaint, applying peer pressure, or better yet, organizing your coworkers.
If experts advise against it and the data isn’t there to support it, why is this happening?
Ideally, experts say states would have waited to gradually reopen until testing and contact tracing became widely available; healthcare professionals and hospitals were fully equipped to deal with small spikes in new cases; and there were agreed-upon treatment routes for those who did contract the disease upon reentry into public life.
Unfortunately, that is very much not the case right now. “I think it’s safe to say that they are decisions that are being motivated by politics and political affiliation, not science,” Hills said. “I honestly don’t know how anyone can look at the information we have now about disease spread and think, ‘Sure, let’s reopen barber shops!’”
Hills also noted that a, uh, specific set of businesses in Georgia were the first called on to reopen. “I wouldn’t be the first to point out how coincidental it is that [the businesses that reopened] aren’t the top contributors to the state GDP, in Georgia’s case,” she said. “But they are largely run by minorities. Per the US Dept of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, Georgia’s largest industries were finance, insurance, real estate, rental and leasing. Nowhere on there do we see ‘shampooers, cosmetologists, or massage therapists’–and yet, those are the businesses that were reopened on the 24th of April.”
Popescu confirmed that the factors that should be considered a signal to reopen public spaces and small businesses just aren’t in place. “The indicators really emphasize decreasing case counts (among other things), and from what I last saw, that’s not been the case for Georgia,” Popescu said. “Moreover, my concern is that some of these openings are not being done incrementally, which is the recommendation.”
Basically, political leaders are desperate to look effective right now. They are so eager to appear competent and responsive that they’re willing to cave to a vocal minority that’s murderously pissed that they can’t buy lawn fertilizer right now. And they don’t mind putting the bodies of marginalized people on the line in the process.
What should I tell my family members who are eager for things to return to the way they used to be, and who are excited about this news?
Hills suggested being blunt about politicians’ abilities to assess safety right now. “Just because someone is a fantastic bricklayer doesn’t mean they’re a fantastic cardiac surgeon,” she told VICE. “People have specialties and expertise, and just because someone is in political office doesn’t mean that they are qualified to or educated in the fields necessary for making science-based public health decisions. Listen to the folks with those backgrounds, none of whom are advocating re-opening at this time.”
I’m not the only one who feels this way… right?
If you’re feeling adrift, no, you’re not alone. As a recent report in The New Yorker explained, widespread confusion is a side effect of decisions to reopen that are rooted in politics and not actual science. “If the response becomes political, it’s a disaster, because people won’t know if you are making recommendations based on science or politics, and so there’s the risk they’ll start to tune out,” Tom Inglesby, the director of the Center for Health Security, at Johns Hopkins, recently told The New Yorker.
Inglesby further explained that mass confusion is magnified when people receive conflicting orders from a bunch of different people, which is what’s happening in both Texas and Georgia. Jackie Paige, 29, had planned to follow Dallas County’s stay-at-home order until it expired on May 15, but Governor Greg Abbott’s order to start reopening Texas on May 1 supersedes the county rule. “I would love to be able to have a beer out at a bar, but I just don’t feel safe, even operating at 25 percent capacity,” Paige told VICE. “I still plan to basically continue quarantining as much as I can. If I do have to work wearing gloves and a mask all the time, I’ll do that. But I wish that we would continue the stay-at-home order. We can’t just pretend the virus doesn’t exist anymore.”
Chaz Clark, 25, lives in Atlanta, and said he similarly feels “no real guidance from the government.”
“It still is very vague, there’s not enough time to actually implement changes,” Clark said. He added that most of Atlanta is still de facto following quarantine protocol, and it seems “telling” to him that a lot of restaurants around the city are choosing to keep their dining rooms closed a while longer.
What’s going to happen next?
Hills said social distancing, in the way it is currently being practiced, does not appear to be sustainable. “I do actually agree with many people who feel that social distancing measures may have been implemented in haste, in extreme, without thinking about the long-term effects on individuals, small businesses, and the economy,” she said.
But she does not believe the abrupt changes being implemented in Georgia and Texas represent a viable solution to our country’s current economic woes. “Part of the reason we are seeing a decline in cases is because of the extreme social distancing measures taken,” she said. “Remove those measures completely, and I very much expect we will see cases climb again—pretty much in time for these areas to have to take extreme social distancing measures again, just ahead of Memorial Day Weekend.”
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