Annals of Reopening

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April 27, 2020 3:39 p.m.

These points from TPM Reader JL are all, I think, well-taken. We shouldn’t assume that the states that are in the process of opening up will quickly see dramatic resurgences or outbreaks. There’s a lot of complexity under the hood distinguishing one state’s plan from another. And in many cases, the real restraint isn’t public orders as public fear and resistance to going back to normal.

I heard a news report of states planning substantial reopens in first week of May, and with the caution that unnamed and uncharacterized ‘public health officials’ were worried about it. (Another example, IMHO, of the BS corporate ‘information product’ slop we flatter as news reporting in the US)

The selection of states mentioned included CO, MN, MT, FL, GA, TN. And it occurred to me that is a collection of good, bad and ugly state political leadership.

So, I hope TPM keeps an eye on the whole range of ‘early reopen’ states and reports out the range of outcomes from a comprehensive representation of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As I mentioned in several previous emails, MN had a very aggressive and early testing program and seems to have done a good job of limiting the epidemic in the state. I haven’t seen any reports of irresponsible behavior.

On the other hand, there is FL and GA! It is quite a mixed bag.

Several interesting questions arise: how much backing did, for example, MN government have from its public health department for the reopen? Are there any systematic differences between the CO and MN reopens, versus the others?

How much of the early reopen and return to freedom and business prosperity boosterism in FL, GA, and TN is really gubernatorial PR bamboozlement, but with really the same public health guidance as in CO and MN?

I am quite sure that what public health departments recommend across states is more uniform by several orders of magnitude than what that menagerie of governors say.

Second, I am a bit concerned about, from what I think I see in news reports, of supposed public health expert advice of an emerging CW that quick disaster will ensue from these reopens. I think people should be careful about jumping on that bandwagon and being coo confident in those predictions of quick disaster. I do stress that I think these early reopens are risky. And, at least in states where we know very sketchy governors may interfere with sound public health advice, there is a high probability of a second wave sooner or later that will rival the first. But I think the matter of timing for places like FL is very uncertain. I have three reasons for my opinion.

First, from what I see in the various local news clip interviews with the owners, the majority are being quite thoughtful about it: business by appointment only, no waiting lines inside, masks mandatory, halving maximum occupancy, putting up various smorgy type splatter and spit shields, etc. I don’t know how much of this is due to official public health guidance or new local regulations, or how much due to the common sense of the small business owners. At this point, especially with the news reports what works in South Korea, for example, knowing which general direction to go is not exactly rocket science, and anyone with the wits to run a small business and desire to avoid bankruptcy should be able to figure it out. In fact, a lot of what I’ve heard sounds like what is being planned in cautious and careful California.

Second, polling and news reports indicate that right now, 75 to 80 percent of the population is in the mood to be very cautious. So, from news reports I see, mostly cautious and responsible owners, operating in an environment of mostly cautious and responsible potential customers who will trickle in very slowly at first. So, it may go well at first, and, with luck, for some while, particularly in MN. The question is, what will happen when a lot of cautious and responsible patrons come back and some transmission threshold is crossed that will be hard to detect for a month or so? When will that happen? And the situation will be guided by a population of people trying to second guess when it is good for them to go out, because others are not out. So, there are similarities to the El Farol Bar Game (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Farol_Bar_problem) which has a multitude of tricky and hard to predict equilibria very many producing very unexpected results, at least to the players, if not the game theory analyst.

Third, IMHO the sustainable success of any of these reopens won’t be tested until a serous outbreak occurs (and we don’t know how long until that occurs). And whether that outbreak is controlled or not, MUST depend on government action, not up to individuals no matter how informed and well intentioned. All the stuff about ‘flatten the curve’, ‘X and Y trending down for two weeks’, ‘cushion in ICUs’ are mere proxy indicators, which can and have degenerated into abject slogans, except in the context of whether outbreak control will be sufficient in the face of future outbreaks. Look at this way, you can wait for the ultimate ICU cushion in any county or city: all normal ICU beds empty, and all surge capacity ICU beds that have been recently built are also empty. If a serious outbreak occurs and cannot be controlled, that maximum cushion, that governments made their population sit around in their houses forever and a day for, will be engulfed and overwhelmed in a few weeks, and it will be like a mist disappearing on a hot summer morning.

In the foreseeable future, covid-19 will be an endemic disease in the US, a few cases will be burbling around through the population no matter what, even if there were an A+ fed and 50 state set of coordinated policies. So, there will be future outbreaks, no matter what. When those will occur will be hard to predict. It may be only after they do occur, that we can separate the sheep (say, MN and CO), from the goats.

I am pretty confident, sketchy people like Kemp and DeSantis will try to pass off any seeming early success at the vindication of their irresponsibility and ignorance, at least until a public health oopsie comes along. But we don’t know how long that will take.

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