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Shawn Vestal: We shouldn’t act like Phase 2 is the finish line

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Everywhere you look right now, with the announcement that Spokane County can move cautiously down the road toward reopening the economy, you see people racing across the coronavirus finish line, arms raised, cheering.

Which risks putting us back at the coronavirus starting line.

Spokane County seems to be on track to receive a variance from the governor to move slightly more quickly into the second phase of the plan to reopen the economy. This would be good news, and the county health officer has made a sound, well-reasoned argument for allowing this to happen, based on our cases and system capacity and plans to handle cases going forward.

But because the success of any reopening depends on how individuals behave, it’s crucial that we see this for what it is: a graduated, cautious step, not a flinging open of the gates.

More businesses will be open and more activities sanctioned – but still bound by guidelines that will require extra effort and sacrifice. The pandemic will continue to take an economic toll that will not quickly subside and which will require further governmental propping-up.

For this to work, most of us need to understand that and follow the guidelines. Wear masks. Keep our distance. Wash our hands. For this to work, the responsible majority has to stick with it, and not start hosting fondue parties.

Phase 2 is no bacchanal. It relies on cautious, burdensome measures to protect safety. Camping is open. Gatherings of five people are OK. Businesses can reopen under a slate of challenging circumstances – increased sanitation, screening for symptoms, gathering customer information for potential contact tracing. Six feet of space everywhere, all the time.

And masks, please. The rest of us thank you.

It will look nothing like life before the virus.

For the most enthusiastic of the “Reopen Now” crowd, these caveats are almost entirely missing. To hear some people talk of what might happen if we get our variance – and to see the defiant and irresponsible early reopening of several local businesses – it’ll be haircuts and hugs and free shots for everyone.

To hear some people talk, it’s over.

That will make it easier for the virus to hang on and spread, easier for it to make a comeback that will threaten even a cautious reopening. We are now conducting, essentially, a national experiment to see what happens when states reopen their economies against the best advice of the experts.

Earlier this month, disease modelers at the University of Washington predicted that this national relaxation of social distancing – boosted outrageously by White House cheerleading and misinformation – will double the expected number of deaths from the virus. The CDC, using an amalgam of several different models, is predicting a gradual slowing of cases nationwide, with the number of deaths continuing to rise to 110,000 by early June.

The effects of the virus have differed by state and region. Washington’s numbers are on the right path, and Spokane’s are particularly good. We’re flattening the curve and there is every reason to think that it’s been because we shut down early and held the line against pressure to reopen.

But, in a pandemic that has often been footnoted by the yapping terriers of misinformation, conspiracy thinking and denialism, discussions about the current coronavirus moment have been oversimplified into a binary: Capital O Open versus Capital C Closed.

What we have is a hybrid. Where we’re going now is a hybrid. A little more open. Cautiously stepping forward into the dark. Keeping up the guard.

This isn’t the finish line. If we’re not careful, we may end up further away from it than we are now.