End the Virginia Shutdown on May 2
Newly revised projections justify earlier re-opening
With new data showing that the Chinese coronavirus is having far less impact than was projected at the time of Governor Ralph Northam's emergency order to shut down the state of Virginia until June 10th, the argument for an earlier re-opening date is sound and compelling.
We are in a much better position to evaluate the situation now than we were then. Relying on the very same metrics used to justify the 6/10 date, we can now predict with confidence that the more fearsome potential outcomes predicted earlier will not come to pass. Furthermore, since real-world data is running even lower than the prediction curves, additional downward revisions in model predictions can be anticipated.
The projected peak is now a month earlier, 4/20, rather than 5/20 as was thought just a week ago. The peak will be lower than even the most optimistic bound on the previous projections, and will not overrun the Commonwealth's capacity to handle it. Other common fears, such as the security of the food supply (or toilet paper) have already been.. ahem, wiped away.
Accordingly, the date of June 10th is no longer appropriate to the now better understood and less perilous situation Virginia is in.
As the week went on we learned many new things about the prevalence of the virus, potential treatments, and our ability to execute with the health care system.
The number of people tested has soared, and with it the amount of data on the scope and scale of the problem. Previous estimates can now be refined with real data. Because the US has ramped up testing in a big way, numbers of confirmed infections have risen with the amount of testing. The spread, however, is now decreasing - whether by nature, or as a result of measures taken, the upper range of possible risk has come down dramatically. The 30% false negative rate on current tests continues to be a problem; however, industry is crash-developing faster and better tests and we should see better ones soon. Still, we have now done nearly 2 million tests, and are pumping them out at faster and faster rates as new supply chains come on line.
Some of the best news comes in the form of a treatment, the administration of hydroxychloroquine. Despite the fervent wish in some quarters that it were not so, its efficacy is now so widely recognized, that nations have moved to ban its export - including India, which makes most of the world's supply. Fortunately, several years of good will towards India have paid off, and that nation has made an exception for the USA. We will get all the hydroxychloroquine we need and have the forging of a new friendship with India by the current Republican administration very much to thank for it.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) supply continues to be a problem, with the number of N95 masks available the primary concern. Americans are doing what Americans do, which is: adapt, improvise, overcome. Production lines previously dedicated to other products are now being repurposed to make masks. We are not there yet but the country is focused on solving this problem and we will get it done.
The prospect of ventilator shortage situation has eased completely. Western states with their issues apparently under control have now begun to return units to the federal stockpile. New York, by far the hardest hit, now says they have all the ventilators they need. If Virginia needs more ventilators, they will be available for us; but as new numbers suggest, we are more likely to see those surplus ventilators loaned to France or Spain, because we won't need them.
Shutdowns Are Not Free
Virginia under normal conditions produces $1.4 billion per day of GDP. While we have no good estimates of the hit to GDP from the shutdown - it is indeed an unprecedented situation - if we make a conservative estimate of a 30% overall hit to GDP from the shutdown, Virginia citizens will lose an extra $15 billion, $1,700 per capita average, from an extra five weeks of shutdown.
The real-world cost of shutdowns, to the people of Virginia, go beyond the numbers. Every additional day, there will be more businesses that just couldn't make it that one more day, more people who just didn't have the money to keep going any longer with their income reduced or gone. Reopening the state earlier than planned will be an economic stimulus inherently targeted specifically at the very people who need the most help, those who have been put out of work or business by the shutdown - and a stimulus that can't be diverted to the Kennedy Center.
The cost to state and local governments is considerable as well. These must pay their costs, but if business is not being done, tax revenues will miss their mark. With what capital will these deficits be filled?
In another sense also, shutdowns are not free. There are no provisions under the Constitution to allow governments to shut down the business of citizens, and force them into their homes; to limit religious congregation, or to limit the purchase of firearms by declaring gun stores "non-essential", or to limit the assembly of citizens - these powers are explicitly forbidden to government under the Bill of Rights.
Perhaps the most important part of the natural and Constitutional right of association is political assembly. For those not previously following the affair, the party primary/convention candidate selection process has been obliterated, being largely coincident with the shutdown schedule. While Democrats are making few choices this year, Virginia Republicans have many healthy contests, for Senator and in several hotly contested Congressional districts. The unexplained selection of June 10th as the shutdown date neatly encompasses the scheduled July 9th primary as well as all of the GOP conventions left in the schedule - county, congressional district, state conventions - and the lack of alternative explanation for this specific choice of date leaves open the possibility of intentional interference with Republican nomination processes. (NOTE: As this was being written, Governor Northam has ordered the primary date changed to June 23rd; however, the rest of the disruption of the political process remains.)
Reopening Virginia Safely
Americans are not faced with a binary choice between carefree, wanton recklessness and bunkering down indefinitely waiting out the zombie apocalypse. We can capture almost all of the benefit of this period of quarantine while cutting the consequential damage of the shutdown dramatically, and quickly - and, in Virginia, that is to change the current end date of June 10th to an earlier date near the start of May.
Lifting the shutdown is not license to lick door handles. General concern will support a culture of continued social distancing, and the wearing of masks and gloves, and of encouraging hand-washing and discouraging face-touching. Businesses and government agencies should take responsibility to make sure that commonly-touched public surfaces - doorknobs, elevators, handrails, and similar - are regularly disinfected, and any reasonable fear of exposure is mitigated.
It may be that a local hotspot persists, as we approach the reopening date. In these cases additional local - not statewide - measures may be wise, such as continuing to stay shut down for an additional week or two. These extensions may not be unreasonable in specific locales, while remaining unreasonable on a statewide basis.
Expectations that life will immediately return to normal are misplaced. This event will reverberate for a long time, no matter how quickly it is resolved from here. Awareness of the virus is now universal, and to some degree virtually everyone will take some measure to mitigate risk of it.
But, regardless of the challenges, America works. If we all have to go to work in N95 masks and nitrile gloves, then by golly everyone will get N95 masks and nitrile gloves and go to work, because this is the United States of America and not France or Italy or Belgium. If there is business to be done, Americans will find a way to get it done. It's who we are - a people which, in the end, will let nothing stop us from doing what we want to do.
In the event of another wave of the virus, we are now immensely more prepared than we were before to deal with it - more tests, more ability to make tests, faster tests, treatments, equipment, studies (now with hard data to work with), drugs, supply chains, everything top to bottom necessary to deal with this is either now already in place or on its way in express fashion. Should this disease arrive again, we will defeat it again.
Announcing the revised date as soon as possible is important, as well; the moment the announcement is made, real-world planning can be done, monies will be spent towards those plans, and economic benefits will begin to be felt immediately, before the shutdown even ends.
A Better Date to End the Shutdown
In selecting a date, the optimum is that which marries the people's top two priorities: capturing the mitigation benefit of having shut down in the first place, while choosing as early as possible a date to protect those being devastated from the economic fallout of the virus.
Guided by these priorities, the current prediction curves show that almost all the mitigation benefits of current measures including shutdowns will be achieved by the beginning of May, with a peak in Virginia of April 20th. Dates in that range then, give us the best of both worlds in responding to the twin menaces of the virus and economic devastation.
May 1st is a Friday, making for an awkward re-opening date as it truncates the standard work week. Saturday, May 2nd is then the best date - those who have to re-open facilities will have the weekend to prepare them, Virginians can enjoy one normal weekend to reorient themselves back to their normal work cycles, and on Monday the 4th of May when most return to work once more, we can start living our lives again. With masks and gloves and washing hands 20 times a day if we have to, but we will.
Every good faith opinion should be subject to revision upon receipt of new information. In this case, the state government's decisions in March, as to the best length of shutdown for Virginia, now appear invalid by the same metric used to justify them. New information now informs us that shutdown-end dates weeks earlier will serve the purpose. The question now concerns only which earlier date is most appropriate.
Our proposal, for public discussion and debate:
Re-open the Commonwealth of Virginia for business, starting on May 2nd.
Announce this change immediately, to give citizens the maximum time to prepare to get back to work again, as well as immediate certainties as to when they will be able to pay those bills that have been stacking up.
If you agree, please sign the Petition to Reopen Virginia
Founder, The Virginia Project
April 9th, 2020