A prudent reopening is sustainable

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RALEIGH — A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column arguing that while a stay-at-home order might be justified as an initial response to an immediate and poorly understood threat, it wasn’t “sustainable” for more than a few weeks.

“The draconian response to COVID-19 has imposed grave economic and social consequences on North Carolinians,” I wrote. “They won’t shelter in place for months. They can’t. And they’ll become increasingly impatient with leaders who offer them platitudes instead of a practical plan for moving forward.”

The piece generated more than the usual amount of hate mail. I was being “ignorant” and “reckless” and “irresponsible.” My opinion was motivated by “extreme partisanship,” because Gov. Roy Cooper is a Democrat, the allegation being that I’d “roll over” to the same policy if North Carolina’s governor were Republican.

Hmm. At an April 15 press conference, Cooper had this to say: “The stay-at-home orders are working, but we know our current situation is not sustainable in the long run.” Check.

In my original piece, I pointed out that the case for stay-at-home was not to keep North Carolinians from becoming infected with COVID-19 and thus shorten the duration of the pandemic. Rather, its stated purpose was to “flatten the curve” — that is, explicitly to lengthen the duration of the pandemic so that the infection spread more slowly and the peak need for hospital beds, supplies, and intensive care did not exceed the available capacity.

Avoiding that outcome was why several research teams scrambled to come up with COVID models. As soon became evident, however, the models were too pessimistic. Drawing on preliminary data, the models assumed a ratio of hospitalizations to COVID-19 deaths than turned out to be incorrect. Rather than seeing their bed counts and ICU admissions surge over the top, our hospitals are operating far below capacity.

It is time to begin a prudent reopening of North Carolina’s economy. It isn’t going to happen all at once. It will follow something like the three phases the Trump administration’s task force laid out on April 16 — with workplaces, stores, schools, and restaurants following different schedules, with differing levels of mandated distancing and widespread use of voluntary distancing.

No, reopening can’t wait on a vaccine. That is likely a year or two away. Reopening can’t wait on near-universal DNA testing for the virus, or therapies proven to be unquestionably effective in clinical trials, or flawless test-and-trace systems that can prevent any potential outbreak. Those are likely many months away.

A prudent reopening can include increasing levels of regular testing, however, such as blood tests for antibodies and temperature checks at workplaces. A prudent reopening can include immediate quarantines of the sick and ongoing social-distancing rules for those at greatest risk of severe illness (the elderly constitute 84% of COVID-19 deaths in North Carolina, for example, while those under 50 account for 5%).

The strongest argument for a prudent reopening — indeed, the inescapable argument for it — is that it is consistent with a free and functional society. It is sustainable. Staying at home for months is not.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

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