(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Coronavirus cases in the U.S. are rising steeply by the day, with especially high counts in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California. Daily totals over 40,000 nationwide threaten to stall an economic recovery that’s barely begun.
It’s no wonder that governors and some mayors are pausing or even reversing efforts to reopen their economies. So far, they’ve stopped short of reimposing stay-at-home orders on Covid-weary residents. For now, that seems wise, because such strong measures shouldn’t any longer be necessary. Lessons have been learned about how to prevent infections in ways that do less economic harm — by wearing masks, keeping distance between people and practicing other safe behaviors.
What’s essential, though, is to put these lessons into effect.
For this, don’t look to President Trump. He’s refusing to lead the country to safety by encouraging best practices. Governors should step into the void. Yet too many have been unwilling to act. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has punted to local leaders. Like governors in many other states where Covid-19 is spreading, he has declined to follow the many states that have issued rules on wearing face masks.
Governors must understand that their most important job is to protect the public and prevent needless suffering and death. As their states’ top elected officials, they are personally responsible for public health. Especially now, with Covid-19 surging, they need to summon the courage and leadership to steer people toward safe behaviors.
Fortunately, over the past months, the world has learned which measures work best. Face covering is one. Masks have limited the spread of Covid-19 in South Korea, Japan and China — because people who wear them are less likely to transmit virus particles to others. Masks are scorned in many parts of the U.S. for making people look weak or uncool, or because they’re a nuisance. Governors can persuade people to think again by explaining why masks work, wearing masks themselves, and making sure that effective, comfortable masks are widely available.
Here, the federal government could help. By promising to buy hundreds of millions of high-quality masks, it could prompt manufacturers to quickly make them, and then distribute them to state and local health departments. This would also help ensure that people have relatively effective masks that block as much virus transmission as possible.
Keeping people at least a few feet apart from one another — still better, six feet apart — and discouraging large gatherings also prevents infection. This is because the coronavirus spreads most readily when infected people spend extended time with uninfected people in close, enclosed quarters. All states have guidelines to encourage social distancing, but governors vary in the degree to which they endorse them and encourage people to follow them.
Outbreaks can also be controlled by closely monitoring people who are newly infected, making sure they stay at home and get the treatment they need, and tracing and isolating people they have been in contact with. By deploying its standing army of public-health workers to conduct such efforts, Japan has been able to keep its Covid-19 outbreaks under control. All U.S. states need to have the same capacity, but so far only a handful do.
In allowing public activity to resume, governors should also pay attention to who is most vulnerable. Again, lessons have been learned. Children are less likely than adults, especially older adults, to be infected with Covid-19 and to develop severe symptoms. So it may be safer to open schools, carefully, than places where adults congregate — including some workplaces. People with chronic health problems such as diabetes and lung and heart disease are also more vulnerable, which means special care will always be needed in nursing homes.
As hospital beds fill up, some U.S. states may soon have little choice but to reimpose stay-at-home orders. Lockdowns work, after all, and more powerfully than these milder measures. But by moving quickly to change behavior — by discharging their responsibility to lead — governors can avoid that setback, and save people’s lives without destroying their livelihoods.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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