Opinion: COVID restriction orders should end when experts, not business hawks, say it’s safe

Ryan ZumMallen. Courtesy photo.

People Post is a space for opinion pieces, letters to the editor and guest submissions from members of the Long Beach community. The following is an op-ed submitted by Ryan ZumMallen, the first managing editor of the Long Beach Post and a former board member of both We Love Long Beach and Leadership Long Beachand does not necessarily reflect the views of the Long Beach Post.

As the dad of a suddenly at-home first-grader, trust me when I say I can’t wait for life to go back to normal. It’s what I think about most. And when talking with fellow parents, any conversation inevitably circles back to how badly we crave regular school hours, regular work hours and the freedom to move as we please. We miss restaurants. We miss playgrounds. How we miss the beach! The problem is, we know we can’t stop now.

It is far too early to expect life to return to normal. As much as physical distancing and stay-home orders have slowed the coronavirus, it is still causing illness and death to people in our community every day. As of Sunday, Long Beach has recorded 576 positive cases and 31 deaths. The danger is still there. Flattening the curve will save roughly a half-million lives in the U.S., according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, but by design, it also extends the amount of time we will need to practice isolation habits. The health of our community relies on our collective ability to keep going, and not fall prey to false optimism.

Some argue that Long Beach should take steps to reopen the economy now. Businessman and former City Councilmember Gary DeLong advocated for such an action last week. But this could prove disastrous. In order to maintain current levels of spread, the global economy must stay at its current pace for two-to-three more quarters, reports the financial forecasting firm Allianz. An economic normal as we know it will not return until mid-2021, the analysts said.

If we try to jump ahead too early, it will force a full restart of business closures. Stay-home orders will begin from scratch. We know this is a serious risk, because it’s exactly what happened during the 1918 influenza. A majority of Americans who died during that outbreak were killed in the “second wave” period, the result of an attempted return to normal life that proved premature and had to be aborted, according to the Centers for Disease Control. There is simply no way to guarantee safety until a vaccine is available, reads a recent report from the journal Science, and there is no guarantee a vaccine is coming.

DeLong’s premise takes cues from Republican-led states such as Georgia, Oklahoma and Mississippi that have allowed select businesses to reopen. Meanwhile, small localized rallies—often with worrying far-right undertones—have popped up in select cities across the county, advocating for a complete reversal of stay-home orders, social distancing and even mask usage. All of these efforts should be viewed with skepticism. The risks they are willing to take pose real dangers and minimize the realities people are facing every day. How do you reopen businesses while schools are not in session? If employees are concerned for their health or cannot find childcare, are they fired? Won’t that leave them ineligible to collect unemployment? Calling more people back, often low-wage frontline workers who lack employer-provided healthcare, makes them vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, spreading it to family at home, and increasing strain on our healthcare systems. If you try the plan, and the plan fails, people die.

If that seems excessive, consider the words of pro-reopening voices. Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman recently offered residents and employees in her city up as a “control group,” and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested the elderly are willing to sacrifice themselves in order to benefit the economy. DeLong wrote in his op-ed, “If hospital cases begin increasing, then tighten the restrictions,” as if it is a faucet that can be turned on and switched off at a moment’s notice.

This idea, of sacrificing faceless residents in service of the economy, is in the same vein as those from Goodman and Patrick. After all, in the time it takes you to reach for that handle, how many nurses and doctors have already fallen sick? How many families are handed crushing medical bills that will follow them for years? How many grandparents will have to say their final goodbyes from behind glass?

“The issue is still quite grave,” Jason Douglas, a professor of public health at Chapman University who is studying the coronavirus regionally, told me. He noted that Long Beach residents of color especially are vulnerable, since they face unequal access to affordable healthcare and resources, which frequently leads to health disparities such as increased hypertension and respiratory issues. Alarmingly, this magnifies the risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms.

“We need to ensure that all communities are treated equitably through this process,” Douglas said. On the contrary, what DeLong proposes puts frontline workers and their loved ones in harm’s way, while isolating the decision-makers who put them there. These lives are not expendable. They should not be treated with such wanton disregard.

The free market did not stop the spread of the coronavirus. The free market will not fix it now. With our economy on pause, what is keeping people afloat is the strength of our social fabric. Our unemployment systems are strained, but provide while private employers cannot. Denser urban cities like Long Beach are actually better positioned to continue a riding-out period, according to authors of a recent study by the World Bank. We are already seeing our city utilize well designed infrastructure and institutions to arrange financial help for businesses, safeguard residents from experiencing homelessness, open senior meal programs and hold hearings and webinars to keep citizens informed. This large-scale public support, in addition to increased federal spending, will need to continue, analysts at RMS US argued, to keep people and businesses afloat until a safe reopening. What is the point of being the richest, most powerful country on Earth if you don’t care for your people in a crisis?

Our reopening should be driven by public health first. Most of the country believes this. A recent ABC News poll found that 80% of Americans will refuse to visit public spaces even if their state reopens. In a Politico poll only 37% said people should be allowed to return to work while the virus is active. Reopeners like DeLong are loud, but they are few. We cannot allow their hastiness to determine the course of our recovery.

It is up to us to make these promises to one another: That we will continue to prioritize safety; and that we will consider our fellow citizens in our actions. There are difficult days ahead, but we can stay strong in the knowledge that staying home saves lives. On the horizon there is an opportunity to reopen our city the right way—not the fast way. We will make it through this together. What’s important is that as many people as possible get to see the other side.

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