Laura Albert: Coronavirus reopening risks – Here’s a plan to make us safer

Recent data indicate that coronavirus transmission is rising in at least 31 states.

In response to the new cases, state and local governments are facing criticism for relaxing stay-at-home orders and opening businesses these past few weeks. Instead, many argue the lockdowns should have continued until transmission was virtually stamped out. This criticism is well-meaning but misguided.

Opening the economy is not the problem. Opening the economy without a plan to control the risk is the problem.


Opening the economy is not a single binary decision where businesses and institutions are either open or closed and there are no other policy decisions to make. We cannot eradicate the virus simply by getting the timing “right” regarding when to end lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.

Additionally, we must acknowledge that lockdowns come at an enormous cost to the economy and to our mental well-being. Extended lockdowns have led to a nationwide surge in depression and anxiety and the rise of “deaths of despair.”

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Making these false assumptions has limited our ability to control the virus and has made recovery more difficult than it needs to be.

There is no foolproof way to eliminate the COVID-19 risks. Instead, we can minimize the risks by weighing the costs with the benefits and adopting policies that reflect the right tradeoffs.

So, what is the best approach for state and local governments? There are three important elements of an effective plan.

First, COVID-19 transmission was largely driven by so-called “super-spreader” events. Policies should focus on preventing events with a high potential for infecting many others. These include events that are inside, poorly ventilated and crowded.

Large indoor gatherings should require continued regulation. Nightclubs should remain closed and concerts should be postponed. Other activities, such as air travel and public transit, should be altered to reduce the risk of transmission as much as possible.

These three risk-management strategies may be the difference between recovery and a second wave. It’s up to the rest of us to do our part.

Second, face masks should be required to be worn in indoor public spaces and businesses, on public transit and in crowded public spaces where physical distances cannot be maintained. Better masks such as N95 masks and surgical masks should be worn when they become available for widespread use.

Only 14 states currently require face coverings to be worn inside businesses or in public where social distancing is not possible. Perhaps not coincidentally, these states are more effectively controlling transmission than the states where face masks are not required.

Third, new confirmed cases of coronavirus will occur. Our local and state governments need to rapidly test those who exhibit symptoms, implement contact tracing to identity unconfirmed cases and isolate residents as needed to stop the spread.

While testing capacity has expanded in the past months, we lag behind where we need to be in terms of contact tracing. Without a robust contact tracing process, a few new cases of coronavirus could lead to an exponential growth.

These three risk-management strategies may be the difference between recovery and a second wave. It’s up to the rest of us to do our part.

We should wear face masks, have periods of physical distancing and adopt a myriad of recommended changes to the physical spaces where we go to work, attend school and do business.

Beyond this, how we choose to manage risk for ourselves is personal. We are not obliged to go shopping or get a haircut because the economy is open. Many will want to continue to limit their travel to reduce their risk based on age, comorbidities or risk tolerance.

Regardless of our personal risk preferences, it helps to stop sweating the small stuff. Our lives are not returning to the way they were before.

Being overzealous with risk-reducing measures can ultimately become counterproductive and erode the progress we have made, especially since it is not clear how long we will have to comply with the new lifestyle changes. Giving ourselves permission to enjoy low-risk activities can help us endure over the long haul.

We can enjoy time outside at parks, playgrounds and beaches. We can eat outside. We can enjoy time with a friend. These activities come with a small level of risk, but the reality is that thousands of walks on a sparsely populated city sidewalk carry less risk than a single outing to a crowded nightclub. Enjoying some semblance of normality gives us the strength to eliminate the biggest risks.


In March, there was much we did not know about the novel coronavirus, and we adopted a philosophy of letting the virus set the timeline. The lockdowns were the right approach at the time.

Now that COVID-19 is contained and we have learned more about how to control the spread, we need to switch our philosophy to one that acknowledges that we have the power to influence and ultimately control the rate of transmission. But it will work only if we have the gumption to adopt sensible risk-management strategies. How well we do this ultimately affects how quickly “normal” returns.


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