June 2020

Line in the Sand: To open up the country or to not ... that is the question.

Author: Ken Robinson, Arlene Spiegel | Photographer: M.KAT Photography

Opinion 1: Ken Robinson
Social distancing, essential, non-essential, flattening the curve; these are just a few of the words that have now become part of our daily vocabulary, but why? America woke up one morning and the country was being shut down. If your business or job was deemed non-essential by the government, then you likely stopped getting paid.

Approximately 78 percent of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck, so having your livelihood shut down has drastic effects not seen since the Great Depression. Throw in that almost 50 percent of Americans are employed by the types of small businesses that have been deemed non-essential, and you have a crisis never seen before by almost all Americans.

In full disclosure, I am an essential employee based on the guidelines put out by the government and, other than not traveling as much as I did before COVID-19, very little in my life has changed.

Back to the original point. Why did we shut down for what now is going on almost two months? The answer to that question varies from state to state and county to county. You obviously apply different guidelines based on the set of facts that are pertinent to your situation; a one-size-fits-all approach to anything will never be your best plan. Whenever a crisis happens, whether it is car accident, a house fire or a pandemic, the first thing you always do is gather information and then implement a plan that you feel is best to solve the crisis.

When COVID-19 hit, I do think a shutdown/stay-at-home order was the best idea. The problem is, after that, no one in government started to research plans or come up with ideas in order to get people back to work. The government just shut everything down and then sat around waiting until some arbitrary numbers reached some level deemed acceptable. What if the government started looking at plans to keep things open instead of ideas to keep them closed?

Other than a few industries, the state of South Carolina spent the entire month of April shut down—not just businesses, but beaches, parks and basically anything public. There was another way to do this, though. After 7-14 days we had a pretty good idea who the at-risk were, what safety measures would protect people the best and how we could create a safe environment in most businesses.

With a few safety guidelines, we could have allowed outdoor dining as well as 25 percent-capacity indoor dining in restaurants. Nail salons, hair salons and gyms could have followed similar protocols in order to stay open. While I don’t frequent nail salons, they wore masks and gloves even before COVID-19.

Shutting down Hilton Head Island had an even larger impact, because March is the start of the tourist season that essentially keeps local businesses in the black. Rental properties sat vacant because people were afraid to travel or were told they couldn’t come to the island. From much of what I read, many residents didn’t want people to come here.

That thought process is fine, I guess, but there is a fine line between safety and telling a property owner what they can and can’t do with the property they own. Furthermore, if you research what rental properties pay in property taxes and what that funds, it is likely you would have a very different opinion, well … unless you want to pay more in property taxes on your primary residence.

Overall, in my opinion, shutting down for almost two months was a lazy solution to a serious issue, and I expect more from my government. Had we suspended pay of all government workers, I have a feeling there may have been a few solutions a little sooner.

As of May 12, there were 346 deaths in South Carolina, or .000067 of our state population. The 12 deaths in Beaufort county represent .000062 of our county population, and the number of cases statewide is .0015 of our population. One argument I have heard on these numbers is, “Well, we did all these things, so that is why our state/county was so low.” I can’t disprove that, but it can’t be proven either.

Should certain demographics follow different protocols? Yes. We know that because of the data we gathered at the beginning of this. Should we have forced an entire nation to shelter in place? Absolutely not.

Opinion 2: Arlene Spiegel
When I was little, my exasperated mother was perpetually warning me, “Patience is a virtue.” But I was an ornery, impatient cuss of a kid, and I consistently ignored her advice, rushing recklessly into situations which inevitably got me into trouble. As an adult, I am still pretty ornery and impatient. But, as I watch 47 states begin their re-openings, based not on data or guidelines but rather on our unwillingness or inability to slow our pace, I am pondering the wisdom of her words.

I can hear the naysayers shouting, even as I write this, “Patience? I have a mortgage to pay, a family to feed, a business that is teetering on failure! How can you preach patience?” But what if I suggested this to you? Public health and economic health are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they are totally interdependent; you cannot have one without the other.

My first question is this: Has there been a big change in the public health situation since lockdowns began in March? If there hasn’t been, why are we opening right now? Are we safe and will opening protect our economic rebound? Sadly, the answer is no.

While in some states the outbreak has either plateaued or peaked, there is still an awful lot of infection out there. This is a virus that is very contagious and extremely sneaky, easily spread from asymptomatic people who are out and about and unaware they are carriers. The best estimates are that 10-20 million people in the U.S. have been infected so far. There are 328 million people in our country, so the majority of the population still has no immunity.

We are re-opening with the possibility of many people becoming ill. People who are not feeling well, even if they are not sick enough to require hospitalization, are not going to be visiting shops, eating at restaurants, and working out at their local gyms.

Secondly, psychology is at play here. While some people dismiss the fear factor, it is all too real. The newest projections say that with increased mobility, by August, the death toll may far surpass 136,000. Besides the human suffering that number represents, the economic suffering will be irreparable. As more people become ill, and the nightly news headlines the increasing deaths, people will retreat to their homes, afraid to venture back out. Businesses that have just opened, re-hired employees, and ordered expensive supplies will find themselves without customers, furloughing workers once again, and shuttering, this time, perhaps forever.

Finally, here’s the biggest reason to slow down and take a breath. We really have no plan in place to stop the spread. That, to me, is the scariest thought of all. The whole purpose of the lockdown was to take the time to plan, but we did not use that time wisely. When the outbreak began, we had no immediate tools to stop the virus; it happened too quickly, it was too widespread, our hospitals were overrun, and we had no testing and tracing capacity.

Now, here we are in May, talking about re-opening concert halls, theaters, gyms, restaurants, and barber shops with too few tests and little to no contact tracing capacity. Testing is what we need to safely open, and more important, to keep us open. We can identify hot spots, focus on finding new cases, isolate those who are ill and figure out who they might have had contact with during that time. But right now, that ability doesn’t exist. So, what does that mean? It means when we re-open, we are in the midst of an experiment, basically flying blind and hoping for the best.

Yes, there is a chance it might work out; businesses may boom, and we may be back to a new, improved normal. But, experts far smarter than I am are skeptical. They say that without a hard and fast plan, the chances of that happening are slim. And what could be more devastating to an already demoralized economy than to have to stop, lockdown again, and lose any gains that we might have made?

So, while I hate to admit it, my mother was right. Patience is a virtue, and in this case, it may the only thing that saves the lives of our citizens as well as our struggling economy. 

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