New York – Like many New Yorkers, I’d had my fill of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefings some time ago; they’d gone from inspiring to frustrating as New York City’s lockdown entered its fourth month. But last week, after horrific nights of protests and rubber bullets, looting and vandalism, Cuomo said something that hasn’t been said nearly enough by government leaders.
"Don’t snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”
He continued: "We’re talking about reopening in one week in New York City. And now we’re seeing these mass gatherings over the past several nights that could in fact exacerbate the COVID-19 spread. We spent all this time closed down, locked down, masks, socially distanced, and then you turn on the TV and you see these mass gathering that could potentially be infecting hundreds and hundreds of people. After everything we have done. We have to take a minute and ask what are we doing here? What are we trying to accomplish?
After making it clear that he strongly believed that the protesters’ cause was just — and urging them to channel their anger into an agenda for change — he returned to the pandemic. His anguish was palpable.
"We just spent 93 days limiting behavior, no school, no business, thousands of small businesses destroyed. People will have lost their jobs. People wiped out their savings. And now, mass gatherings, with thousands of people, in close proximity. … How many superspreaders were in that crowd? … How many young people went home, kissed their mother hello … and spread the virus?"
"We have to be smart,” he kept saying as he ended his remarks. "We have to be smart right now.”
Ever since the protests began, the pandemic has gone from being the biggest crisis since 9/11 to almost an afterthought, overshadowed by the urgency and importance of taking to the streets in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. Axios reported that on Sunday, for instance, MSNBC, CNN and Fox News devoted 25 percent of their combined airtime to the protests — and only 2.5 percent to the coronavirus.
Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight wondered on Twitter what it would mean for social distancing now that the news media "and other elites” were playing down the virus. In fact, we know the answer to that: though many of the protesters are still wearing masks, many are not. As for the critical need to stand 2 meters apart to avoid infecting others, well, that’s been abandoned.
What’s more, it’s well documented that the virus is spread through respiratory droplets that are expelled when an infected person coughs, yells or even talks. Protesters yell. They scream when police spray them with pepper spray or tear gas. The public health experts who were so quick to condemn rightwing protesters for endangering the public with their behavior have largely been silent in the face of these much more widespread — and, from a pandemic standpoint, more dangerous — protests.
Indeed, according to National Public Radio, dozens of health experts signed an open letter supporting the protests. "White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19,” they wrote. Be that as it may, the virus doesn’t care whether the protesters are white supremacists or progressives.
During the pandemic of 1918, people often died in 12 to 24 hours after being infected. The suddenness of death made the pandemic impossible to ignore. This virus isn’t like that. It’s less potent than the so-called Spanish flu, and symptoms don’t appear for a week or so after infection. Many people never have symptoms at all. It’s much easier to ignore, or soft-pedal, in the heat of the moment. To the country’s detriment, that’s exactly what been happening.
So where does that leave us? First, it most likely means, as I noted previously, that just when many cities, including hard-hit New York, were finally getting the virus under control and beginning to reopen, there will be a new outbreak of infections. Second, there is a decent chance that the reopenings — which we’ve been awaiting so eagerly — will suffer a significant setback.
Consider contact tracing. As the number of positive cases dwindle, the idea is the government can trace those with whom a newly infected person has been in contact and quarantine them, allowing the uninfected to return to work or otherwise go about their lives. The protests make contact tracing virtually impossible. That, in turn, increases that likelihood of widespread infections once cities reopen.
Or consider all those hundreds of thousands of small storefront businesses that have been closed because of the lockdowns. For many of them, the vandalism that has taken place will make it even harder to reopen because their windows have been broken and their inventory stolen. Once the number of positive cases begin rising again, will restaurants still be able to open, even at 50 percent capacity? Will employees be able to return to the office? Will people be able to go to gyms? Or will we be right back where we were in mid-March? Will Cuomo have to reverse himself and, painfully, shut down New York City again?
A number of economists have devised what I would call reopening models — calculations about how to maximize the ability to revive the economy while minimizing the possibility of further COVID-19 deaths. The paper I found most persuasive was written by a team led by James Stock, a Harvard economist.
Stock said, "Our view is that it is possible to get people back to work, and get them shopping and avoid a resurgence in escalating deaths so long as there is some contact tracing. It is also contingent on a high degree of discipline in their non-work lives. If people have parties that are small and outdoors, then yes, you can open the economy. But if you continue your non-work life the way it was before, that completely swamps the contacts you make in the office. Those contacts are relatively safe. It is the out-of-work stuff that kills you.”
Of course, the out-of-work stuff is exactly what has been taking place on the streets of just about every large city this past week. When I asked Stock whether he thought the protests negated his work, he said no: He thought the protesters were aware enough of the virus that if they came down with symptoms they would know enough to get tested and to self-isolate. And he was hopeful that because the protests took place outdoors, we might avoid a second wave. I hope he’s right, but I fear he’s wrong. There is a big difference between having a small party outdoors and joining thousands of others, in close quarters, to protest for social justice.
In my neighborhood in New York, people are still stepping onto their balconies every evening at 7 p.m. to bang pots and pans in honor of the health care workers who have put their lives on the line to fight the pandemic. Hundreds of them — doctors and nurses, and other essential workers, like meat-packers and delivery people — have lost their lives to the virus.
Not since Sandy Hook has the country been as galvanized by a killing as it has been by George Floyd’s death. I am not discounting the importance of this moment, or the possibility that it could bring about important and lasting change. But I do wonder: if the protests lead to a new wave of the pandemic and set the country back on reopening, will the lives of those essential workers have been lost in vain?
Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business.