As infections surge, reopenings stumble

Mitchell Hartman Jun 29, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
A man gets his hair cut at a barbershop in Austin, Texas, in May. Texas is one of several states with spiking coronavirus cases after an early reopening. Sergio Flores/AFP via Getty Images

As infections surge, reopenings stumble

Mitchell Hartman Jun 29, 2020
A man gets his hair cut at a barbershop in Austin, Texas, in May. Texas is one of several states with spiking coronavirus cases after an early reopening. Sergio Flores/AFP via Getty Images

Coronavirus cases are surging in many parts of the country. Florida, South Carolina, Texas and Arizona are logging record numbers of cases. Those are some of the states that imposed the fewest restrictions on residents earlier in the pandemic — and opened up the most over the past couple of weeks.

Now that Texas and Florida have ordered some bars and restaurants to close down again, what does current epidemiology say about how to reopen without fanning the flames of the pandemic?

The Trump administration’s messaging about COVID-19 prevention measures hasn’t been clear or consistent. 

But, with cases surging nationwide, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar sent a clear signal Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” 

“We need to social distance,” Azar said. “We need to wear our face coverings if we’re in settings where we can’t social distance, particularly in these hot zones.”

These hot zones are concentrated in the southern and southwestern states, where restaurants, bowling alleys and salons have started to welcome customers, and people have headed indoors for the air conditioning.

That’s a perfect environment for COVID-19, said Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers.

“As we all speak and cough and sing, we produce droplets, and those droplets are how other people can get infected,” Rivers said. She added that people need to reduce that “droplet-sharing” with hand washing, distancing and mask wearing, in addition to avoiding being indoors with other people who aren’t in their household. Rivers said states where COVID-19 is surging again should look at pausing.

“[They should] not continue to reopen more and more activities, but first try to get that level of transmission back down to make sure we don’t reach a point where health care systems are becoming overwhelmed,” Rivers said.

More testing is key to broader reopening, according to University of Minnesota epidemiologist Ryan Demmer.

“If we can scale up and test more frequently, we’ll have a better ability to pull people out while they’re infectious, and the rest of the economy can continue to move forward at much lower risk of outbreaks and hot spots,” Demmer said.

And just because a state has reopened and officials say it’s safe to go out and shop again doesn’t make it any more likely consumers will do that. 

John Leer at Morning Consult said hard numbers are driving consumer confidence — COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, deaths.

“That means that consumers can sort of see through some of the politics, and their eye is on the underlying health situation in their region or across the country,” Leer said.

He points out that since mid-June, when COVID-19 cases started surging, consumer confidence has started falling again

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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