by Ryan Cooper
Trump broke with Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp at a White House press briefing Wednesday, saying it is “too soon” for the state to begin reopening.
The United States is now the epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic. We have more cases and deaths than any other country by far, centered in New York City, which has had the worst outbreak of any major metro area in the world. Unlike Western Europe, where the epidemic was very bad but new cases and deaths have fallen markedly, the U.S. has so far roughly plateaued at around 30,000 new confirmed cases per day and 2,000 deaths. New York seems to have declining cases and hospitalizations but many other states and cities definitely do not. And no place in the country seems to be anywhere near the level of mass testing and contact-tracing measures needed to get a firm handle on the outbreak.
Naturally, Republicans are already pushing to ease lockdown measures anyway. Their stubborn childishness and ideological zealotry, aside from getting people killed, will likely mean lockdown measures need to last much longer than they otherwise would.
Readers may recall the goldfish-brained political press seizing on some halfway responsible comments from President Trump back in early April as evidence that he had finally started taking the pandemic seriously. But as I predicted, he quickly got bored and frustrated, and went back to his usual habits — lashing out at the media and Democrats, hyping dubious miracle cures, and demanding the lockdown measures be rolled back so he could make his big beautiful stock market and employment numbers go back up.
The latest iteration of this has been seen in a handful of protests from right-wing extremists at state capitals. Trump has been attacking Democratic governors over the lockdowns (despite plenty of Republican governors enacting similar measures), which inspired a few heavily armed right-wing militia types to mount demonstrations at some state capitals and major cities, which got heavy coverage by Fox News, which led Trump to support them publicly, and so on. That in turn got much of the mainstream press to cover the minuscule protests like a giant grassroots revolt. (Back in the old blogosphere days, we used to call this the “puke funnel.”)
From the very start it has been obvious how to get out of this crisis as fast as possible. As better-governed countries have shown, you lock everyone down to suppress the first wave of infection, and in the meantime build out the capacity for mass testing and contact tracing, so any new outbreak can be directly suppressed before it gets out of control. You set up crash production of medical equipment, protective gear, and sanitation supplies, so doctors and nurses and other essential workers can keep working without infecting themselves or others. Any place that must remain open, like grocery stores, can keep their employees suited up and their locations regularly cleaned.
While that is happening, you put the economy in stasis. The best approach is probably what Denmark has done — paying all businesses to keep their employees on payroll so the economy can bounce back rapidly when the crisis has passed (then recouping the cost with a one-time tax).
The American response, by contrast has ranged between halfhearted and nonexistent. The Trump administration has done approximately nothing to coordinate the response — on the contrary, they have inexplicably seized many shipments of protective gear bought by states and hospitals, leading some to resort to smuggling tactics so they can get even a small fraction of what they need. Growth in national testing capacity has stalled far short of what is needed, and the high positive rate implies that millions of positive cases are being missed. When Maryland’s Republican governor used his wife’s contacts to obtain 500,000 test kits from South Korea, Trump attacked him (obviously for making Trump look bad).
Congress did pass an economic rescue package, but it was weeks late and plainly insufficient — in part because Republicans are ideologically opposed to the sweeping measures necessary to keep the economy going. The huge expansion of unemployment benefits is not working in many states (like Florida), and the program to give smaller businesses grants to keep their staff on payroll ran out of money after just two weeks.
Yet the Republican push to force a premature end to lockdowns seems to be working, politically at least. Governors in Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina recently announced plans to do so (in Georgia even gyms, salons, restaurants, and theaters will be allowed to reopen by Monday), and several others are following suit. Colorado Governor Jared Polis said outright that his state does not even have mass testing capability, let alone a contact-tracing system, but that lockdown easing was going ahead regardless.
Much of this is no doubt driven by the economic pressure on states. Their tax revenues are cratering, and without support from the federal government, they will be forced to slash their services to the bone. For Trump, that is the point — he opposes aid to states because he reportedly wants to force them to reopen so the numbers can go back up. Attorney General Barr is even considering legal action against states to accomplish the same goal.
But it is nearly impossible to imagine that even a partial return to normal won’t just lead to another wave of infection. The Italian epidemic in Lombardy has been stubbornly persistent because many businesses got exemptions from the lockdown orders, and people are continuing to circulate — and they actually have a contact-tracing system in place. If a serious new infection wave gets going, then stay-at-home measures will continue regardless, because most people will be too frightened or worried of infecting others to leave their homes — and many of those who do will become seriously ill or die.
Donald Trump has never before faced a problem he couldn’t squirm out of through lying, propaganda, or sheer shamelessness. But the coronavirus is not a cabinet contractor or a bank or Hillary Clinton. Trying to force the economy back open before the pandemic is under control will only prolong the economic damage, and keep de facto lockdowns going on and off for months or years. If I had to guess, I’d say that is what is going to happen.
Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly,.