‘Solve the Biology, or the Economy Won’t Recover’


If you find yourself being asked to choose between saving lives and reopening the economy, you’re being played for a sucker.

The great majority of Americans understand that getting past the Covid-19 crisis depends on a wise combination of medical breakthroughs, public health precautions, economic relief and sound public policy. According to a Politico/Morning Consult poll, 82 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans agree Americans should continue to social distance “for as long as is needed to curb the spread of coronavirus even if it means continued damage to the economy.”

But special interests who want to score political points want you to believe otherwise. Mostly conservative strategists and donors have funded and weaponized small but loud groups of protesters who try to portray Democratic governors as heartless big government types who don’t care about the working man. Or they want to tar Donald Trump’s critics as coastal elitists who can hide from the impact of the lockdown while safely working at home.

The key to this strategy is the strawman argument that the health officials and policymakers who want to keep a tight lid on the country until Covid-19 is brought under control don’t understand the pain and suffering being caused by keeping businesses shut down. That’s not what I am hearing from Democrats like Andrew Cuomo and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer or Republicans like Ohio’s Mike DeWine and Maryland’s Larry Hogan. Cuomo often talks, with great empathy, about the human costs of the lockdown. He counsels a gradual approach to opening precisely because he fears that moving too quickly will sink us into another cycle of illness and death — and another death spiral for the economy. 

I guess I am a coastal elite. I still have a job. I can work from home. And I don’t want to rush back to my office and contract a virus that might kill me.

But I also want other people to get back to work. To that end, I am open to — no, desperate for — a strategy that will return us to a semblance of normal. I think about my local supermarket. It’s been seven weeks since people began shopping there under tight restrictions: social distancing, masks, limits on the number of people who can shop at any one time. I haven’t heard of any hotspots or outbreaks associated with grocery shopping. That suggests — to me, at least — that we can begin to open other businesses and venues deploying similar restrictions.

My hunch is confirmed by a useful paper by Erin S. Bromage, an associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. His analysis of the emerging science on the spread of Covid-19 concludes that you’re at highest risk when you are sharing close indoor spaces for an extended period of time with people who might be expelling the virus. You’re at much less risk outdoors or in a grocery store or similarly large space where most people don’t spend too long a time. That bodes well for hiking in the woods and working in larger, well-ventilated spaces, and not so much for, say, riding a crowded bus or attending a synagogue on Rosh HaShanah.

When figuring out how and when to open, I want politicians to consult people like Bromage, not a pundit or a political strategist.

The second politicized argument for opening makes the awful analogy that this is a “war.” According to this line of thinking, every death to Covid-19 is a battlefield casualty of the kind that we have long tolerated to guarantee liberty and the future of our country. The problems with this analogy are many, but consider this: We know which cohorts are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, including the elderly, meatpacking and factory workers and African Americans. They didn’t enlist in this war nor were they drafted, but they are being asked to bear the disproportionate amount of the pain and sacrifice. It’s the immoral general who fights a war having decided which troops are expendable according to their age, race or workplace.

The third specious argument of the reopen crowd says that opening houses of worship is a matter of religious liberty. Well, yes, but wise clergy understand that church and state can work together if it is a matter of preserving life. Happily, most Jewish organizations have come around to this realization. As Rabbi David Kaufman of Des Moines, Iowa, told Vice President Pence on Friday, “We are uniformly in a position that it is too early to return to [in-person] worship. It’s inadvisable at the moment, especially with rising case counts.”   

Those calling for cautious reopening aren’t ignoring the economic casualties of the shutdown. Instead, they are urging generous government support, in the form of unemployment insurance, payroll protections and small business loans, to ease the pain and lessen the sacrifice. Of course, that is exactly the approach that one side in this debate — the one with a lot invested in discrediting the utility of government — fears the most.

But like I said, to get dragged into these kinds of polarizing arguments is a fool’s game. The great majority of Americans understand that, as Bromage puts it, “if you don’t solve the biology, the economy won’t recover.” Provocateurs want you to take sides, when what we need to do is to take care. 

is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.