It’s hard to tell if the United States is winning the battle against the coronavirus, or prolonging a catastrophe. The rate of infections and deaths is flattening out in some areas, but only because businesses are shut everywhere and nobody is going out. The economic hit is massive, with at least 22 million Americans newly unemployed. The United States remains way behind on the testing capacity needed to map and contain the virus and set the stage for widespread business reopenings.
Some things are working: social distancing, new safety guidelines for essential workers, and much of the aid Congress has provided, with more on the way. But some things aren’t working and it’s time to call them failures. Here are 4:
Leave testing to the states. President Trump apparently doesn’t want to have any responsibility for testing, because then he might get the blame for any problems that crop up. Yet in the states, Republicans and Democrats alike are clamoring for federal help to address gaping holes in the supply chain for tests that are becoming a crucial barrier to reopening businesses.
There are several private-sector producers of kits to test for the coronavirus. But they don’t have the capacity to rapidly boost production to levels needed to test 3 to 20 times as many people per day, which public health experts say we need. The feds don’t need to take over private-sector facilities or build their own production lines. What Washington could and should do is devise a single national strategy for maximizing test production for as long as needed.
Governors have specific asks. The laws and regulations governing this type of testing are mostly federal, so only Washington can allow variations that could help speed production. There are shortages of some testing components, such as reagents and swabs, that federal resources could help unblock. States by definition cannot develop national strategy, because governors’ authority stops at the state border. It’s absurd and even immoral for Trump to insist this isn’t the federal government’s job. It’s like saying fiscal stimulus is the responsibility of state legislatures or monetary policy is up to the local savings and loan.
Egging on eggheads. Just about everybody’s losing patience with home quarantines and mandatory business closures. A few think they deserve special sympathy, however, so they’ve flouted public safety guidelines such as wearing masks and keeping distance, and shown up to protest in capitals in Michigan, Washington and other states. Trump has egged them on with his LIBERATE tweets and other encouraging comments, even though these protesters are violating Trump’s own guidelines for reopening the economy. Trump’s political game is obvious: He thinks he wins by siding with deplorables revolting against the government. But if these protesters actually got their way, Trump would be the dog that caught the car, since premature reopenings would most likely cause a resurgence of the virus that would force another round of closures, deepening and prolonging the recession.
Underplay the numbers. Some governors eager to reopen—in states such as Florida and Texas—have been pointing to what seem like improving, better than expected casualty numbers. Forecasts now call for about 60,000 U.S. deaths from the pandemic, compared with initial estimates as high as 2.2 million. See, it’s not really that bad! But that logic is fatally flawed. The numbers are improving because of the very shutdowns critics are griping about. Reopening before the virus is under control will push the death toll higher. That estimate of deaths with no protective policies is 37 times higher than the toll with the measures we have now. Governors and mayors should contemplate the cost in lives likely to be the result of efforts to protect people’s livelihoods by reopening.
Closing business that can operate safely. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has drawn criticism for emergency closures that are stricter than in surrounding states and apply to businesses that might be able to operate safely, such as landscaping services, paint stores, car washes and marinas. It’s better to overreact early in a crisis like this than to move too slowly, but governors are going to have to relent at some point and show voters they’re applying sound judgment instead of making blanket decisions. This doesn’t excuse boneheaded protests by social bunchers practically begging to get infected. But it might give them one less reason to leave the house.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: email@example.com. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.