At this point in the outbreak of COVID-19, a general consensus has emerged among Americans that with record levels of unemployment, the country cannot remain on lockdown indefinitely. Economic and physical health, after all, are intertwined, and both have taken a beating over the past two months. The question for many thus becomes what balance should be struck between public health measures to limit a second wave of the pandemic and the resumption of “normal” economic activity. 

Principles for Reopening America

What values should guide leaders and decision makers in finding a healthy balance as the United States begins to reopen its economy? Several weeks ago the Goldwater Institute (GI), a conservative and libertarian public policy think tank, offered three principles to keep in mind as America reopens.

The first is that “People have the right to responsibly make choices about their own risks.” The idea here is that adults have the right to take risks, and while the government has a role to play in preventing the spread of infections for the sake of American’s health and wellbeing, the complete elimination of risk-taking is ultimately counterproductive. Rather than forbidding Americans from taking any action that isn’t completely safe, public officials and leaders should focus on guiding Americans to take reasonable precautions and empower businesses and individuals to seek solutions for themselves. 

“Most likely, the solutions will include a combination of public health measures—such as requiring masks in public, and limiting the occupancy of public buildings—along with enabling businesses to reopen,” GI wrote in a blog post. “But whatever form opening up might take, it must not ignore the ability of individuals to make their own choices about risks.”

The second principle is at the core of America’s constitutional system: freedom of speech must not be curbed or suppressed. In the midst of a crisis, First Amendment violations become much more appealing to government leaders and even many Americans because they fear that the spread of misleading information can make the situation worse. GI argued, however, that dissent and disagreement are crucial to keeping the public and public officials fully informed to make the best decisions they can. 

“The best way to handle misinformation is to provide more and better information. Scientific progress especially depends on the free exchange of information. And censorship is likely to anger an already frustrated public and ensure they will be less willing to heed the advice of public health professionals,” GI warned.

The last of these three principles for reopening America is that governors should make decisions based on factors that are objective, quantifiable, and transparent. At a time of much economic stress and turmoil, governors in particular are going to come under pressure from a multitude of stakeholders and members of the public. Transparency and clear, objective metrics are important here to ensure governors act fairly, based on the best scientific and economic information at their disposal, rather than picking winners and losers.

“Clear, measurable criteria will allow the public to know whether they are taking adequate precautions or not, whether public safety measures are sufficient or need to be increased, and whether their elected officials are acting responsibly or serving other interests,” GI concludes.

Americans are wary about reopening too quickly

A series of polls released the first week of May found a large majority of Americans are more worried about opening up too quickly than not opening quickly enough. 

A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted from April 28 to May 3 found that more than two thirds of Americans would be uncomfortable going to a retail clothing store or eating out in a restaurant, suggesting ongoing fears among the public that they could become infected and that the worst of the pandemic still isn’t over.

Similar results were found by a survey from the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Project conducted from April 23 to 29. Almost three-fourths of respondents said they are more worried about the government lifting social distancing restrictions too quickly

“There’s a tendency for people to focus on people who are very loud right now,” said Robert Griffin, research director for the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group. “But there’s… a real patience that pervades most of American action.”

Yet another survey conducted by Ipsos in partnership with ABC News found that almost two-thirds of Americans more closely align with the view that opening the country now is not a good idea because it will lead to a higher death toll, while just more than one-third generally agree that an immediate reopening is more important in order to mitigate the negative impact on the economy. It found sharp partisan divisions among these two groups of respondents, with 65 percent of Republicans compared to only six percent of Democrats more in favor of opening the country now to salvage the economy. In contrast, 92 percent of Democrats and 35 percent generally opposed an immediate reopening. 

Both the White House and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have released guidelines for opening up America again. Read more about the White House guidelines here, and the CDC guidelines here.


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Image Credit: Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash