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The Washoe County Administration Complex on Friday, March 6, 2020 before a press conference with Washoe County officials addressing the county's first presumptive case of COVID-19. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Understanding is a three-edged sword: Your side, their side, and the truth

That particular Babylon 5 line came to my mind while watching Nevada’s pandemic response become increasingly politicized over the past week. Though Nevada certainly benefits from enjoying the attention of people from around the world, it rarely benefits from having our internal policy decisions dragged onto the national stage. For example, Gov. Sisolak’s directive to restrict the distribution of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine at the end of March, and the Twitter drama that followed, has turned the comments section of every subsequent gubernatorial tweet into a dumpster fire. For example, here he is giving a dandelion to a tortoise. There are over 100 comments. They’re not congratulating him on his technique. 

Mayor Goodman’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week last week certainly didn’t help matters. 

That’s a problem because Nevada is in a world of trouble, and we really don’t need the interminable tidal pull of the nation’s Culture War distracting us right now. More than a sixth of all Americans are unemployed. Businesses are prohibiting their workers from traveling domestically, much less internationally. Burning Man is canceled. Even Insane Clown Posse, who famously asked how magnets worked, has called it a year.

If even the Juggalos are staying home, what hope is there for the rest of us? 

This raises a rather unfortunate point that a lot of critics of shelter-in-place orders refuse to acknowledge: People aren’t just staying home because their government is telling them to. Most people are staying home because they want to, or at least they’re afraid not to. They were staying home before the shelter-in-place orders and they’re likely to stay home after them. Every poll has been crystal clear on this point. You can broadly ask Americans, you can ask unemployed Americans, you can ask Nevadans, and the answer is the same: Not only do they think shelter-in-place programs are worth it, but there are nearly as many people that think the government’s shelter-in-place aren’t strong enough as there are those that think we need to reopen by the time you finish reading this op-ed. 

Put another way, for every protester getting in their car to join a parade, there might be someone wondering if “castle doctrine” now extends to the six feet in front of their home, especially if the trespasser isn’t wearing a mask. 

This is why several people have pointed out that, even absent government shutdown orders, we’re not reopening. Forget worrying about whether people will go to restaurants or golf or gamble or not, though that’s an issue as well — you can’t force people to go to work. President Trump tried to force meat processors to reopen after several employees contracted COVID-19; meatpackers responded by refusing to go to a workplace where they might get sick. Meanwhile, the United Auto Workers have made it clear that, while Michigan may reopen on May 15, that doesn’t mean the auto industry will. For every barber working as a sole operator that’s on her last couple hundred dollars, there are at least half a dozen employees somewhere that view long-term hospitalization just as potentially ruinous as unemployment. 

It’s true that being unemployed, with all the financial harms involved in that, can absolutely be ruinous, especially in a state like ours with a malfunctioning unemployment insurance system. However, given that hospitalizations from COVID-19 tend to last weeks, and that even a single day in the ER can cost thousands of dollars with insurance, even an intuitive understanding of mathematics will tell most people that skipping a couple of months of rent will cost far less than even a single day on a ventilator. Also, let’s be honest with ourselves — being sick for weeks at a time is incredibly unpleasant. From a broader perspective, meanwhile, dead people don’t add to the economy and sick people subtract from it. That’s why some economic studies suggest that, as painful as the lockdowns have been to our economy, they still beat letting the virus run rampant if those are our only two options. 

The key, then, is to make sure those aren’t our only two options. 

One option that’s frequently presented as an alternative is the so-called Swedish model, in which the government has a light touch and people are encouraged to voluntarily avoid large crowds or the elderly. The results, both medically and economically, have not been encouraging. Last week was Sweden’s deadliest week of the 21st century and Sweden’s economy has contracted more than the United States’. Closer to home, Iowa, home to many of the meat processing plants that closed because of the virus, attempted a similar approach; it now has more cases than Minnesota despite having about two million fewer people.

Another option that results in both a lower body count and less economic damage is the one employed by Taiwan and South Korea. Unlike the United States, they haven’t relied upon extensive shutdowns or shelter-in-place orders. Trouble is, their approach relies on voluntary mask wearing (something which many Americans actively resist), aggressive testing (which we’ve struggled with), and automated tracing, which relies upon a level of electronic surveillance that Americans are still fundamentally uncomfortable with

So, if we’re not going to voluntarily wear masks (even though we should), if we’re not going to test everyone who thinks they may have COVID-19, and if we’re not going to track the movements of every infected person’s smartphone, then what are we going to do? 

That’s the answer Gov. Sisolak’s team has been trying to find for months now. The reason he isn’t clearly communicating his team’s answer is because there isn’t one. It doesn’t exist. This problem is not solvable by him or any other governor. No matter how many times you add one and one, you’ll never get three, no matter how hard you try. If we’re either unwilling or unable to do the things that actually make the pandemic manageable, neither he nor anyone else can manage it. It’s as simple as that. 

If we’re not going to voluntarily take the steps to manage it, that means we’re going to take our chances. The problem with that approach is, while some customers might be willing to take the chance that one trip to a bar won’t make them sick, or that one trip to their barber won’t make them sick, or that one trip to the grocery store won’t infect them, the people that work for the bar, the barber, and the grocery store are being exposed to hundreds, if not thousands, of potentially infected people each and every day. And as service jobs pay notoriously little, guess who’s experiencing the brunt of the infection

I’ll give you a hint: It’s not middle-aged white men like me who work from home.

That’s why the Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience, a multi-partisan recovery plan drafted by a group of experts in economics, public health, technology and ethics (there’s a brief explainer from one of the authors that you can watch here — and yes, there are four phases to this one, too) — doesn’t start with protecting the likes of me, at least not directly. Instead, it starts with protecting essential workers and reducing infection rates among that population first. That’s a smart decision. Not only do service workers have a higher chance of getting infected, they also have a higher chance of spreading infection to others and for the same reason. It’s just a shame the Roadmap calls for at least five million tests nationwide per day by early June. The United States didn’t clear even three hundred thousand tests a day until May 1st. Otherwise we could actually follow it and protect those who need protecting most.

Instead, we’re going to do what people always do when they don’t have enough ammunition against a lethal enemy. We’re going to lose. We’re already losing, in fact, both nationally and abroad. The number of excess deaths (above seasonal averages) are clear, obvious and continuing. Sure, we might get lucky and find a miracle weapon by the end of either this year or next, but history has not been particularly kind to losers that seek hope from technological marvels instead of strategic capability.

Even though we’re losing, we can still decide how badly we’re going to lose. That’s important. Doing so decides how badly our losses will be, both in human lives and economic damage. As we do so, we must be mindful of the fact that those on the front lines — the service workers exposing themselves to hundreds and thousands of us each and every day — will do what troops on front lines have always done when they feel they’re fighting an unwinnable battle for an ungrateful population. They’ll retreat. They’ll desert. By voluntarily wearing masks in public, we’re not just adopting a best practice that’s already saved lives throughout East Asia, we’re also signaling solidarity with those on the other side of our masks and letting them know that we’re doing what we can to reduce their chances of harm as well. 

This applies to the economic sphere as well. We need to know who’s liable for what when it comes to protecting ourselves and each other from COVID-19. Letting businesses off the hook (or, worse yet, bailing them out for bad behavior, as Tyson would like us to do) will lead to economic collapse as workers rationally refuse to show up under infectious conditions. That said, leaving businesses solely liable guarantees that businesses will either stay closed for the duration of the pandemic to avoid liability or they will micromanage the behavior of both their workers and their customers to minimize the risk of liability. The governor’s office, the attorney general, and the Legislative Counsel Bureau could do a lot of good work untangling this thorny issue.

We also need to recognize that there are a lot of business models that may have worked before the pandemic but are simply untenable under present circumstances. Restaurants, for example, are going to have to be able to stay profitable while being far less crowded. That, in a word, is probably impossible, even if we all get used to paying a lot more whenever we eat out. At the very least, a restaurant seating half as many people will have, at most, half as many wait staff as it used to. The remainder of its wait staff will have to work elsewhere, probably doing something else. That will require retraining and time.

That’s why Nevada’s not going to reopen. A business that can’t profitably reopen won’t, whether it’s a casino, a restaurant, or one of its suppliers. A lot of doors that closed in March are staying closed.

Most importantly, we need to recognize that the responsibility for recovering from COVID-19 doesn’t rest with our government, nor does it rest with our businesses. They have their parts to play, to be sure, but they can’t do their parts if we’re not willing to do ours. Social distancing only works as long as we’re actually willing to stand six feet (or so — it’s a minimum, for Nevada’s sake) apart from each other when we’re waiting in line. Wearing masks, meanwhile, is a lot like wearing pants — if someone pees on you while you’re wearing pants and they’re not, your legs will get wet, but if they’re wearing pants, too, they’ll only get their own legs wet. Also, property rights are still a thing. If a property owner doesn’t want someone with a fever on their property, they don’t have to do so. Get used to having your temperature taken, and just stay home if you’re not feeling well.

With all of that recognized, we need to be realistic with ourselves, our businesses, and yes, even our governments. We’re not going back to normal, not after something like this. There’s a new normal on the horizon. It’s up to us, not the planners, to decide what it will look like. Let’s use that power responsibly. 

David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].

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