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VICTOR JOECKS: The coronavirus reopening apocalypse that wasn’t

Updated May 16, 2020 - 9:23 pm

It’s so annoying when reality gets in the way of a good doomsday prediction.

That’s the quandary facing everyone who blasted Republican governors, especially Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, for partially reopening their states in late April.

A writer in The Atlantic branded it, “Georgia’s experiment in human sacrifice.” An opinion columnist for The Washington Post wrote, “Georgia leads the race to become America’s No. 1 death destination.” The New York Times had a similar column, headlined, “Georgia went first. And it screwed up.”

Even President Donald Trump said he “disagreed strongly” with Kemp’s decision.

Three weeks later, you’d expect Georgia to be awash in new coronavirus cases. You’d be wrong. On the Tuesday before it reopened, Georgia had 934 new positive cases on 3,800 tests. Last Tuesday, it had 708 new positive cases on 10,900 tests. Other states that opened up early, including South Carolina and Florida, have seen a decline in new cases as well.

Whether you expected results like this or not, it’s incredibly encouraging. Reopening the U.S. economy while preventing coronavirus from spiraling out of control is a goal that should transcend political divisions. Instead, the national media have spent the past two months waiting — hoping — for an outbreak in Republican states. In contrast, they lionized New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. His administration likely caused thousands of deaths by ordering nursing homes to accept patients with coronavirus.

Officials should study the initial success of Georgia and Florida to see what their states could duplicate. That’s true even if — or when — an increase in coronavirus cases hits those states. Remember, flattening the curve was about preserving capacity in the medical system, not eliminating all new infections.

Some blue-state politicians are taking the opposite approach. They want lockdowns prolonged for the foreseeable future. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee extended his state’s stay-at-home order until May 31. Gyms, libraries and pools won’t open until late June at the earliest.

In late April, California Gov. Gavin Newsome said his state was “months, not weeks, away” from reopening gyms, sporting events without live audiences and in-person worship services. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Wednesday, “We’ll never be completely open until we have a cure.” He reopened L.A.’s beaches on Wednesday but prohibited sitting and sunbathing. The chancellor of the California State University system moved its fall classes online.

These guidelines go beyond what Dr. Anthony Fauci, an infectious disease expert, recommends. He generated headlines by warning Tuesday that reopening too soon could lead to “some suffering and death that could be avoided.” But there was context in his caution. That warning was for states that “skip over the checkpoints” in the White House’s reopening plan.

Kemp based his decision to reopen Georgia on a 14-day decline in the number of new coronavirus cases identified each day. That’s in line with federal criteria. Reopening states are also moving forward in phases, just as federal guidelines call for.

Every state’s effort to find the right balance between public safety and reopening the economy may not go smoothly, even with the promising early results. But along with their inaccurate predictions, what the doomsday prophets don’t acknowledge is that keeping a state locked up guarantees a different form of disaster. Record unemployment has its own set of public health problems, including deaths of despair. Less education for needy children, increased human misery and reduced freedom also have long-term consequences.

Leadership requires finding a way forward amid uncertainty, not telling residents to shelter in place until they’re buried under the wreckage of self-imposed economic destruction.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Opinion section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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