With New York City at a standstill, two of its most famous sons are getting a little antsy about getting things back to normal. The simple fact of the matter is that endlessly extending self-quarantine and a zero non-essential workforce is not a sustainable model. Can we do it for a few weeks? Maybe. Can we do it for several months? That gets real dicey real fast. President Donald Trump and Gov. Andrew Cuomo understand this.
The president has been criticized for tweeting about reassessing at the end of the White House’s “15 Days to Slow the Spread.”
But in many ways it is echoed by what Gov. Cuomo said in today’s press conference. “I take total responsibility for shutting off the economy in terms of nonessential workers, but we also have to start to plan the pivot back to economic functionality. You can’t stop the economy forever,” he said.
Both Trump and Cuomo are right. Even in the headiest socialist dreams of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the state does not have the resources to support our entire population if the economy is not generating any money.
Even just discussing the relaxation of quarantine, social distancing, closed restaurants and bars carries with it enormous political risk right now. But the safest option is not always the best one. And it is good that politicians on both sides of the aisle are starting to look at alternatives to total shutdown.
Those who study the analytics of football have long explained that coaches do not go for it on the fourth down nearly often enough. Basically they show that the possibility of maintaining possession of the ball outweighs the gain in field position from punting in many, many situations. So why do coaches punt? Because it’s the safe choice. If they go for it and don’t get it, they get the blame. If they punt, well, they just played it by the book.
The safe play during the Chinese virus is to keep everything shut down and everyone at home. How can you think of money when people’s lives are at stake, after all? But money and people’s lives are very much related. Lives can be destroyed by economic collapse as well as succumbing to a virus. We know life can’t go on like this forever, so it is vital for leaders like Cuomo and Trump to think about when we can start going back to normal.
One plan from Cuomo holds a lot of promise. He wants to ramp up testing to determine who has had the Wuhan virus and gotten through it. The idea is that these people should be immune from the illness and incapable of spreading it. As these people are identified they can be cleared to be back in society. This would be a boon to the medical industry struggling to keep capacity, but also to the economy in general.
If such a testing regime can be stood up quickly, especially in the hardest hit areas like New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle, we could get hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people back out in the real world where they belong. That is a vital goal and nobody should be castigated as some kind of death-monger for expressing its importance.
Most people in the media and politics thus far have stressed that saving lives is not only the top concern, but the only one. But that is not how public policy works in regard to any other issue. About 45,000 Americans die from car crashes every year. If we put a gauge on all cars that kept them under 50 miles per hour, the number of crashes would drop dramatically.
We could pass that law tomorrow, but nobody is calling for it, even though the inconvenience of not being able to go 70 on the highway pales in comparison to not being allowed to leave your home at all. Call it callous, maybe it is, but our society has decided that those lives lost are a price we are willing to pay to drive faster.
Leaders should always be judged by how they react when there is no right choice. You don’t need leaders if the answer is as simple as an Ikea diagram on how to assemble a couch. You just have to follow the directions. But there are no directions for the Chinese virus. It may be that there are no good choices, only less bad ones.
Whether they can pull it off or not, Trump and Cuomo deserve praise for looking for the off-ramp to total isolation and economic disaster. It’s a conversation that has to be had whether people find it distasteful or not. It is leadership and is the thing we need right now more than anything else.