May Day – Mayday

Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

Winston Churchill

It’s been two weeks since May 1, known as May Day, an ancient festival of Spring and which was also chosen by worker’s movements to commemorate the Haymarket Affair in Chicago of 1886. It began as a peaceful rally for an eight hour workday, until someone threw a stick of dynamite at the police who were attempting to disperse the rally. Chaos ensued, resulting in death and injury on both sides.

In the year 2020, May Day has marked a day of partial reopening in many states. In Texas, restaurants, movie theaters, churches, and retail were allowed to open at 25% capacity, followed a few days after by hair, nail, and tanning salons. On May 18, limits will increase to 50% capacity and also adds in gyms and offices.

I think the Texas reopening could have been safe, and could have happened weeks earlier. The one caveat that has yet to be satisfied – people here need to take this infection seriously – and most don’t. They dismiss the seriousness of the illness, they dismiss the possibility for infection and spread, and they don’t even grasp the consequences of exponential growth and what an overwhelmed hospital system would mean.

People have been holed up in lock-down for a long time, and they are anxious to get out. Coupled with that, is a sense that the danger has passed and it’s time to move on. This view has been espoused directly from the Oval Office, albeit without the caveat to take the remaining risk very seriously.

“In May we have already forgotten the lessons of March.”

The virus has fired the first shots in a war, and we have staged a wise and hasty retreat. We gained a pause and respite at great cost. We have squandered the time, with precious little to show for it, and apparently none the wiser. Meanwhile the virus is regrouping and consolidating, waiting for an opening to break out. We have declared victory and moved on. In May we have already forgotten the lessons of March – that an infection somewhere is an infection everywhere.

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25 doctors flying back from NYC on a packed United flight May 9, 2020.

In Harris County, TX (Houston) with a population of five million, we have 622 Covid patients in the hospitals as of 5/15/2020, up 10% from the day before, with this bump coming two weeks after we started to reopen. It is the beginning, not the end.

I’ve been watching New York Gov. Cuomo’s briefings every day, and I really like how he steps through the current numbers each day showing the simple facts, and requesting (vs mandating) that people wear masks when distancing isn’t possible. He has coordinated daily reporting from all hospitals to drive this data, and has led a massive effort to sample 15,000 random citizens for antibodies to determine baseline infection rates (20% in NYC). They are ramping up an aggressive contact tracing system. He has divided the state up into ten regions and defined clear benchmarks for them to reopen and delegating responsibility and accountability to those regions. Five of the ten regions are cleared to open for a phase 1 opening. He’s making it very clear what they need to do to reopen safely – and stay open. He’s communicating in a clear, consistent, and unambiguous way to earn trust and buy-in from his people.

An infection somewhere is an infection everywhere.

NY Governor Cuomo

In Texas, we have no such efforts. We were so very lucky in shutting down right before the infection curves took off. People here generally think this is not a big deal, that the lock down is a waste. Our governor and the President downplayed the seriousness, and the average person doesn’t care to look for data or appreciate the effects of exponential growth left unchecked. Local officials have tried to enact more stringent protocols, but were rebuffed by many citizens and then officially by the governor overriding the new rules.

risk it
Billboard in Texas

So, we find ourselves at the precipice of chaos, with impending entanglements of economic and pandemic consequences, oscillating at historical scale. Only one mantle in the U.S. has the antecedent respect and stature to lead and unite the public in a time of crisis. That is a factual, earnest, and empathetic address from the Oval Office – serious in tone, but striking a confidant and hopeful chord. It carries a weight that no other office or figure in America can match, it would get us all on the same page. This is a singular moment when the President could lead by informing the public that:

a) This disease is very bad, you don’t want it – at any age
b) We learn more new bad stuff about it every day – including for kids
c) It spreads like wildfire, and everybody can carry and transmit it
d) The lock-down has brought it under control
e) As we reopen EVERYBODY needs to be hyper vigilant, on guard, and OCD with masks, distancing, and hygiene – wear a mask to slow the spread, to win – it’s the patriotic thing to do
f) The better we do controlling spread, the more things we can open and faster we can open them
g) We will figure out schools, sports, and travel soon
h) Treatments and vaccines are progressing

That’s it, that’s all it would take to get the entire country on the same page. Get people to want to do the right thing. Don’t force people – let peer pressure work its magic.

“What we have here is a failure to communicate”
–Movie “Cool Hand Luke”

But this is not what we have. We have a hodgepodge along ideological and partisan divides. I understand the electoral math, of not wanting to tell people that they need to do something inconvenient. But that equivocation will cost us all very dearly, very soon.

Texas restaurants are allowed to open to 25%, and I’ve been watching two popular Mexican places nearby. Judging from the parking lots, both are running at about 85% on weekend nights.

I was at a Kroger grocery store last week, and I watched as the produce manager was wearing a mask covering only his mouth (and not his nose) sneezed in the direction of the uncovered strawberries on display. He was talking to his assistant who was dutifully wearing a mask – covering only her chin. The other major grocery chain, HEB, was very aggressive in their initial response, but has slowly rolled back many of their changes. The percentage of customers wearing masks everywhere I go has started to decrease.

The local ice rink is opening up Monday and limiting ice to 12 people total, so I bought an hour of private ice for a 3 on 3 hockey game with friends. Locker rooms and showers are closed. Rules say that everyone has to wear a mask both on and off the ice. This is not an easy ask when you are skating hard, sweaty, with a wet mask, and gasping for air. A good friend of mine, who owns a very successful industrial service company texts me and asks if he can just sign a waiver or something to avoid wearing a mask. I text back, in vain mostly, that the mask protects others. It sounds so impotent, so unconvincing. I have a feeling the rink may be ordered to shut down again soon as infections spike, so I’m going to play at least once while I still can.

Stevie Ray Vaughan statue has a bandana mask | FOX 7 Austin
Stevie Ray Vaughn statue in Austin

The aim of the wise is not to secure pleasure, but to avoid pain.

Aristotle

I ask myself, why should I wear a mask to protect others if nobody else is wearing a mask to protect me? Scott Kupor mentions in his recent book that you should “Sell aspirin, not vitamins” – he has a clear understanding of human motivations. Maybe I need a more serious mask or filter system that works for me instead of others.

As a nation united we could prevent a catastrophe, but as a nation divided the best we can hope for is to survive the infectious and economic catastrophe. This year’s May Day re-opening, without proper protocols and vigilance, may lead to yet another very explosive and chaotic situation.

The string quartet may be playing an upbeat melody on the upper deck, but we may also soon be sending out a mayday call. Let us all hope these charts don’t start to look like hockey sticks. When vanity and strident political maneuvering comes to play in a global pandemic and a historic economic crisis, it has certainly become a very Strange New Normal.

Violinists Play to Empty Toilet Paper Aisle Like it's The Titanic ...
String quartet from the movie “Titanic”

Food Disruption – The Strange New Normal

It’s May 2020 and most people have been pretty shocked by recent supply disruptions. For reasons still unknown, it started with toilet paper and bottled water. Then soap, bleach, detergent, and even vinegar disappeared off of shelves. And when restaurants were ordered closed, entire sections of grocery stores were emptied.

For those that live in areas where blizzards or hurricanes are frequent, they are more familiar with this behavior. For many though, this is a new and strange reality.

Photo by Orlando Leon on Unsplash

Pre-Corona society in the U.S. was a remarkable study in efficiency, reliability, and profitability – largely thanks to “Just in Time Inventory”. We all took for granted that the stores would always be stocked, that the Starbucks would have coffee, and that Waffle House would always have a seat for you.

This hasn’t always been the case. In the 1970’s OPEC launched an oil embargo against the US. Gasoline was rationed to a few gallons, cars lined up for miles at stations, and traffic ground to a halt.

During WW2, strict rationing was implemented – everything was needed for the war effort. Households received a coupon book entitling the user the right to purchase certain items. Most families could buy one tire per year. Sugar was the first thing to be rationed. Steel aluminum, rubber were almost impossible to come by. Howard Hughes had to build his largest airplane out of wood because metal was unavailable, hence the name “Spruce Goose”.

Many more supply chain disruptions have been reported this week, massive disruptions, with food supply. Pasta and frozen potato products have been in short supply this week, and just today a major grocery chain, HEB, announced limits on meat purchases. Dozens of huge meat packing plants for chicken, beef, and pork have closed due to Corona infected workers in the last two weeks.

Photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash

We saw on the news this week milk producers pouring milk down the drains, farmers tilling under entire crops of potatoes, lettuce and tomatoes. It saddened me to read that 2 million chickens would be “humanely euthanized” and destroyed. At the same time the WHO is forecasting multiple major famines, and Americans out of work and hungry, are lining up 5,000 at a time at overwhelmed food banks.

These perverse outcomes harken back to the great depression of the 1930’s when farmers couldn’t sell food because the people who were starving had no jobs or money. Sometimes capitalism results in a deadlock, and it took major government intervention to right the ship. We aren’t quite there yet, but we do have some perverse outcomes from contract farming and “Just in Time Inventory”.

The idea behind Just in Time Inventory means companies try to avoid as much cost as possible with storing, maintaining, and paying taxes on idle inventory. The idea is to have inventory arrive only at the precise time it is needed. The flip side is that it results in very little elasticity in supply chains – options are severely constrained.

As of April 24th, the National Potato Council estimated there was about a billion dollars worth of potato products backed up because of closed distribution channels, like restaurants. The farmers grow specialized varieties for a limited number of buyers and can’t readily pivot when the buyers stop buying. They have to make the difficult choice of continuing to invest additional labor and costs into a crop or cutting their losses. In essence, it comes down to their individual short term financial decisions, which can sometimes be at odds with the national or global need.

Photo by Jyrki Nieminen on Unsplash

With chickens it’s a bit different. Major brands like Tyson hire growers to raise batches of chickens on a contract basis and provides the chicks and the feed. The growers compete with each other for bonuses, and can only supply those chickens to their contracted partner. The meat processing plants began to have their labor affected by Corona virus and had to shut down, leaving the contract growers in a bind. It costs a lot of money to maintain grown chickens, or ‘idle inventory’.  They also can’t sell to anybody else, so they (or the meat company) make the only financial decision they can – destroy the chickens. The chickens were eventually going to be killed for food anyway, but something just seems very wrong about creating life just to destroy it without benefit.

The end result is that grocery stores are now starting to ration out meat and other items as supply chains start to seize up. Indeed the President has invoked Defense Production Act this week to compel the plants to stay open. I’m guessing this will sort itself out in a month or two as workers recover and get back on the job and wait the 8-10 weeks for new chickens to be raised.

These outcomes were not completely unforeseen, and there are many lessons to learn from all of this. A plastics plant in Pennsylvania was able to get volunteer workers to live isolated at the plant for 28 days in order to insulate from outside infection and produce critical raw material for masks and other PPE. Maybe this is something that can done on a larger scale a meat processing plant for a short time. Issuing workers N95 masks and instituting strict controls and daily testing to help slow infection between them would be another alternative.

The reliable hamburger isn’t as reliable anymore, but we won’t starve, and we will have to roll with the Strange New Normal that is 2020 and beyond.

A fitting quote:

“I do. ‘Cause we’re not talking about sushi, it’s hamburgers.

I’m not kidding around,

it’s… these things. The everyday things.

The everyday American things.

The 99 cent things

that, when you suddenly have to be afraid of them, strike at the center of our equilibrium.”

-Aaron Sorkin, aka Toby Ziegler, West Wing