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.
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.
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.
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.
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.