The monumental choice before American policymakers—to maintain the lockdown or advisedly reopen—continues to consume the nation’s opinion-makers, talk-show hosts, and political columnists. Meanwhile, life outside your browser window doesn’t seem to be closely following this discourse.
On one end of the spectrum, there are columnists like the Washington Post’s Fareed Zakaria, who argues that lockdown is tolerable only for those fortunate enough to ride out this storm from the comfort of their home offices. For the 36 million or more who’ve lost their jobs or the tens of millions of essential workers who never stopped going to work every day, these conditions are far less tolerable. These voiceless masses are underserved by elites who, he contends, are detached from and disinterested in their plight.
On the other end, there are those like the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg, who says that lockdown is, in fact, unacceptable only to “financial elites” who “are eager for everyone else to resume powering the economy.” Peruse the “actual data,” she admonishes, and you’ll see that keeping businesses closed is palatable to the vast majority of survey respondents—including nearly 80 percent of those who have lost a job or income as a result.
This debate presupposes that the small-business owners, who have been undone both by mandates restricting commercial activity and enhanced unemployment benefits that make furlough a more attractive option than active employment, aren’t themselves workers. The heart-wrenching appeals from service-industry professionals who don’t believe they will have a business at all if the status quo persists much longer are mounting. Their sense of abandonment is well-earned. They are treated by the nation’s tastemakers as though they were the decadent beneficiaries of surplus labor, not sweat-stained laborers themselves.
More to the point, the Zakaria-Goldberg divide seems to exist independent of the evidence that it is a defunct debate. Depending on where you’re standing, lockdown can mean many things. But the state of economic and social paralysis that prevails in America’s major coastal urban centers is increasingly the exception to the rule.
With the exceptions of Illinois, New Jersey, and Delaware, every state in the nation is either engaged in the process of reopening their economies statewide or in specific regions. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests that prohibitions on commerce in those most recalcitrant states are not as rigidly enforced as their governors would prefer.
Even as some universities in states such as California are preparing for remote-learning programs well into the fall, others are preparing to reopen their campuses as soon as August. Childcare facilities are opening their doors again despite the unknown risks. States across the country are forging ahead with restoring commercial life, albeit with plenty of precautions in place.
Even the most cautious states use metrics that have become moving targets as they gauge the relative safety of reopening businesses. On Monday, California relaxed the health standards it had set as a predicate for returning to some semblance of normalcy. So, too, did the state of New York. Before Monday, lockdown could not be relaxed if the Empire State had experienced an average daily increase of five COVID-19-related deaths at any point since March. After Monday, the state revealed that it would consider extending lockdowns if a particular region experienced a spike after May 15—clearly, an easier objective to reach.
Even if they won’t say as much outright, policymakers are erring less on the side of public health and more in favor of economic activity. This is the right and proper course. Lockdown was only ever a means to an end—that end being the reignition of the social and economic engines that power daily life. The experts who argue against a hasty reopening acknowledge that this deadly coronavirus is not going away; it will be with us for a long time. It is, therefore, necessary to integrate this new variable into our lives in a way that preserves as much functionality as possible. American politicians seem finally to have internalized this, even if columnists who speak for them have not.
Zakaria poll vaults off the pandemic to make the claim that the shutdown is yet another argument against the perceived benefits of “globalization and technological change,” which disproportionately rob blue-collar workers of agency. There’s an argument to be made along those lines, but not within the narrow parameters he set for himself. As University of Chicago analyst Joseph Vavra observed that those sectors that were temporarily mothballed in March—”restaurants and bars, transportation, entertainment (e.g., casinos and amusement parks), personal services (e.g., dentists, daycare providers, barbers)” and other retail services—are point-of-service industries that do not lend themselves to overseas outsourcing.
Goldberg laments the plight of workers in places such as meatpacking plants, which have become notorious vectors for viral transmission. But their operation ensured that lockdown was a viable option for the rest of the country. Shuttering them or breaking the production line with social distancing would have jeopardized that project–hardly a concern for moneyed interests alone. She further notes that the debate in Congress over liability protection for businesses that resume operations in this hostile new environment exposes “the real Coronavirus class divide.” That this debate is only over the contours of what tort protection for businesses should look like, and not whether it should exist at all, shows that the debate over whether to reopen is settled.
These two columnists are representative of the two dominant poles anchoring the debate over whether to lock down or open up. But the debate has survived well beyond its relevance. The question isn’t whether to shelter in place or forge ahead. Ensuring that there is a remnant of the status quo ante left to preserve has forced policymakers to lean into cautiously reopening. It’d be nice if our national debate caught up to events on the ground.