Michael J. Stern, Opinion columnist
Published 6:00 a.m. ET May 26, 2020 | Updated 10:13 a.m. ET May 26, 2020
There is a lot of misinformation out there about coronavirus. We sort the facts from falsehoods.
I may have to turn in my progressive card, but I just can’t stomach an extended coronavirus lockdown any longer. And neither can our country.
I’m inherently lazy, so I hate working out. Given my druthers, I’d spend my days eating ice cream bonbons and watching episodes of “The Real Housewives.”
It’s odd then, that the thing I miss most about the time before coronavirus and stay-at-home orders is going to the gym. For 40 years, the gym has been the thread that tied my physical being to my precarious sanity. Murder trials, surgery and personal tragedies have never kept me from the gym for more than two weeks.
So when rabid armed protesters recently stormed state capitals demanding businesses reopen, the stupidest part of me hoped they would succeed and end my months of gym exile.
Two camps, largely paralleling America’s two political parties, have formed since the initial shock of COVID-19’s global rampage. My status as a die-hard Democrat placed me firmly in the “stay at home until it’s safe” faction. And I’ve not been shy about deriding the gun-toting mobs who insisted on standing shoulder to shoulder as they emptied their lungs at governors who are desperately trying to keep their citizens safe.
Rand Paul, Andy Biggs: Anthony Fauci wants America closed until there’s nothing to reopen
But as time has worn on, I’ve abandoned what I thought was the moral high ground in camp stay-at-home. New circumstances have convinced me that cities should reopen sooner rather than later.
A vaccine looks more unlikely
No one but President Donald Trump’s most cultish supporters believed his promise that this virus would disappear with warm weather, or that we could have a vaccine in three to four months. But at the outset of the federal guidelines that placed the United States into suspended animation, many of us believed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and endless government resources, would quickly find a treatment — and a vaccine would follow in due time.
More than two months in, as the U.S. death toll barrels toward 100,000, those assumptions have proved wrong, and the most basic precepts of viral epidemiology have been thrown into question. Usually, when people successfully fight a virus, they develop antibodies that protect against further infection. But people who have contracted and survived COVID-19 appear able to get reinfected after winning the battle of their lives.
The World Health Organization announced last month that the antibodies that normally keep people safe from reinfection might not work against the coronavirus. Since vaccines function by stimulating antibody production, this revelation means the chance of an effective vaccine is far from guaranteed. A stark reality is being whispered by leading health experts: the majority of the world’s population could be exposed to the coronavirus.
Printing money won’t save us alone
When lockdowns began, most of us were willing to stay home and make the necessary sacrifices we believed guaranteed safe passage to the other side. Flights, weddings and dental appointments were rescheduled months down the road.
But given that June is likely to be no different than September, and July no different than November, staying home won’t deliver us to the safety zone that prompted the shelter-in-place orders in the first place.
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This isn’t a vacation: I’m a survivor of domestic abuse. Quarantine with my father would have been hell.
It’s true that if no one ever leaves home, viral transmission will end. But this is not economically feasible. If the U.S. Treasury continues to print money with little to no manufacturing or labor to back it up, the house of cards will eventually fall. I realize this statement has dropped me into traitor territory. But to the chorus from the left: No, reopening the country due to economic considerations is not the same as saying money is more important than human life.
We face economic realities every day, independent of the coronavirus. Gun violence, drunken drivers, transmissible diseases and a panoply of other dangers could all be brought to a screeching halt if we locked down indefinitely. But a life of home confinement is not a world in which most of us would want to live.
Reopen — with eyes open to the risks
With more states reopening over the next several weeks, people are likely to believe that local health officials have determined things are safe. They’re not. Texas was one of the first states to reopen and recently saw its highest single day of new cases since the pandemic began.
While reopening is a necessity, it need not be reckless. Governors have a continuing duty to tailor reasonable restrictions to community conditions.
The value in early shelter-in-place orders was that overwhelmed hospitals were given an opportunity to stabilize and avoid rationing treatment. That’s a justification worthy of respect, and we should prepare ourselves to accept the possibility of local rolling shutdowns due to filled hospital beds and occupied ventilators.
For the past two months I’ve stayed safe by staying home, limiting my grocery shopping excursions to once a week. I’d like to visit family, but the thought of picking up coronavirus at Trader Joe’s and unintentionally killing my own parents is a Greek tragedy I’m desperate to avoid.
Moving into the third month of home isolation, the toll on each of us is different. Some face financial hardship. Some have seen their education thrown into limbo. For me, the longer I’m home alone, the more my obsessive-compulsive disorder flares. I didn’t realize this until a phone call in which a friend asked whether I was staying safe.
Drastic safety measures
I explained that I had found a way to test myself for coronavirus: Loss of taste is one of the first signs of infection, so I bought a 5 pound tub of jelly beans with 49 flavors. I eat several handfuls daily, one bean at a time. If I recognize each of the different flavors, I figure that I’m safe.
The dead silence on the line convinced me it was time to book a Zoom therapy session.
When the gravity of this pandemic made itself known, I expected my government to protect me. But Trump has spent two months blaming former President Barack Obama for a lack of personal protective equipment, peddling snake-oil cures and denying the shortage of COVID-19 test kits. Sadly, the president has shown that in order to make it through this crisis, we’re going to have to fend for ourselves.
As cities reopen, each of us will have hard choices to make. Choices about working from home, going to restaurants and visiting friends. I’ve decided I’ll go the gym, but not restaurants or movie theaters. I’ve also decided that despite the discomfort, I’ll wear a mask when I’m in an indoor public space — every time.
Staying out of harm’s way in the time of coronavirus promises to be a never-ending struggle to balance risk and reward. I hope I strike the right balance. I cringe at the idea of the progressive Twitter crowd posting news of my untimely demise as a cautionary tale.
Michael J. Stern, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelJStern1
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