Patience, humility required to reopen Maine

Apr 30, 2020

It has been almost a month since Gov. Mills issued a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, and many Maine residents have been locked down longer than that.

Now that the number of new cases appears to be declining, people want to know what’s going to happen next. For many in the state, economic anxiety is taking the place of public health concerns, especially among those who live in areas that have not been hit.

Gov. Mills said Monday that she probably would extend the order (which was set to expire Thursday), but she also said she would roll out the much-anticipated plan to relax emergency regulations. She didn’t reveal any details, but anyone hoping for a quick snap back to “normal” activity is probably going to be disappointed.

Maine’s economy can’t stay locked down forever; however, it it won’t be opened up with a single dramatic announcement. We should expect a series of careful, incremental steps that can be reversed if they result in the event of a new outbreak. Until there is an effective vaccine and treatment for COVID-19, the watchword will be patience.

Even if the number of COVID-19 cases has plateaued in Maine, the epidemic is simmering. People are still getting sick and dying. The extraordinary social distancing steps that Mainers have undertaken to limit the spread of the virus have so far prevented the health care system from becoming overwhelmed by an explosion of new cases. But that also means that most people have never been exposed to the virus, making most of the population likely to catch and spread it if social distancing is abandoned too quickly.

Even a staged return will be complicated because so many parts of the economy are dependent on others. For instance, until schools and day care centers are back in business, it will be difficult for parents to go back to jobs in public-facing businesses. Although some manufacturing plants might be able to operate safely, they won’t be able to because their supply chain has been disrupted. The government could lift all official restrictions, but consumers may not be confident enough to go eat in a restaurant or get a haircut. Economic activity might have shut down seemingly overnight, but it will take time for it to recover.

The other watchword for this process is humility. We have never been in a situation quite like this, so there are no hard and fast rules to get out of it. Mills said she will be guided by science, but every step forward will require a certain amount of guesswork, too. No one knows exactly how people will react as the circumstances change, and there will probably be false starts and dead ends along the way. Anybody who proclaims that they are certain about what is going to happen is bluffing.

Every step forward will involve an element of risk, and balancing the public health harms that would be caused by moving too quickly against the economic harms of moving too slowly.

The Mills administration should be transparent about the factors it weighs and what it knows and what it doesn’t know about how to manage coronavirus in the months ahead.

But the public should also be patient with what is going to be a complicated process.

Reprinted with permission from The Portland Press Herald

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