COVID-19

As infections surge, reopenings stumble

Mitchell Hartman Jun 29, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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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
COVID-19

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
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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

Will the federal government extend the extra COVID-19 unemployment benefits?

It’s still unclear. Congress and President Donald Trump are deciding whether to extend the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits workers are getting because of the pandemic. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia believes the program should not be extended, and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the additional money is disincentivizing some workers from returning to their jobs. Democrats want to keep providing the money until January.

As states lift restrictions, are people going back to stores and restaurants?

States have relaxed their restrictions, and many of us have relaxed, too. Some people have started to make exceptions for visiting restaurants, if only for outdoor dining. Some are only going to places they trust are being extra cautious. But no one we’ve talked to has really gone back to normal. People just aren’t quite there yet.

Will surges in COVID-19 cases mean a return to lockdowns?

In many areas where businesses are reopening, cases of COVID-19 are trending upwards, causing some to ask if the lockdowns were lifted too soon, and if residents and businesses might have to go through it all again. So, how likely is another lockdown, of some sort? The answer depends on who you ask. Many local officials are now bullish about keeping businesses open to salvage their economies. Health experts, though, are concerned.

You can find answers to more questions here.

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