It should come as no surprise that the decision to reopen the country — responsibly in the case of some governors, Brian Kemp-like in the case of others — has somehow become less a health issue than a political issue. Nothing, including the approach of 100,000 Americans dead of COVID-19, changes that.
That’s the world Jared Polis enters every time he decides to liberalize the rules in reopening businesses.
On Monday, Polis announced the reopening of in-room dining for restaurants — with strict guidelines, of course — while rejecting the opening of bars and also while forcing breweries, if they want to be open to customers, to change their food-service model. It’s a tightrope, and the science — as The Washington Post noted — is not always as helpful as one would hope, even for a data-driven governor like Polis.
Brian Nosek, a University of Virginia professor who specializes in making scientific data trustworthy and reliable, told The Post that “the pandemic has exposed the messiness of science. … We all want answers today, and science is not going to give them. Science is uncertainty. And the pace of uncertainty reduction in science is way slower than the pace of a pandemic.”
According to all the polls, most Americans trust science more than their leaders, who continue to expose their own “messiness,” which also can mean unforgivable lapses in judgment. And, of course, we saw photos from around the country of Memorial Day partying with people packed tightly, which is not what most governors had in mind. I didn’t see Donald Trump tweet even once about it.
In fact, after going maskless in a couple of golf outings earlier in the weekend, Trump was, of course, maskless, along with the first lady, while laying a wreath at Arlington Cemetery on Monday. And he was maskless as he moved to Baltimore to make a speech at Fort McHenry, where the words for the National Anthem were penned during the War of 1812 — which was not, as it turned out, one of our best wars.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden left his self-imposed quarantine for the first time since March, making an unannounced visit, alongside his wife, Jill, to a Delaware veterans’ cemetery to lay a wreath. Both Bidens wore masks.
And because it’s Twitter and because the country isn’t divided enough and because mask-shaming is now a thing, FoxNews commentator Brit Hume tweeted a photo of Biden in a black mask, saying, “This might help explain why Trump doesn’t like to wear a mask in public.”
When Trump wasn’t spending his time tweeting about pulling the Republican National Convention from North Carolina or baselessly accusing Joe Scarborough of murder or slamming — who else? — Barack Obama, he naturally retweeted Hume’s tweet. And there it was — Trump making the case that wearing a mask is for wimps, not for manly, if short-fingered, presidents.
And as the Colorado General Assembly reopened — where masks were mandated for visitors but not for legislators or their staff, because, you know, freedom — you could see the same divide playing out with the same level of selfishness displayed by the usual Trumpian suspects. According to reporters at the scene, all House Democrats were wearing masks and maybe less than half of Republicans. Those choosing not to wear masks are making a mockery of the governor’s policies — Polis is, of course, the poster-governor for mask-wearing — while sending the exact wrong message to people who actually pay attention to these guys.
Matt Soper, a Republican from Delta, explained his decision not to wear a mask in telling The Denver Post, “My district doesn’t really buy the whole mask thing.”
Let’s give thanks to North Dakota’s Republican governor, Doug Burgum, who in a speech Friday asked North Dakotans not to mask-shame and to instead “dial up your empathy and understanding.”
Twitter, as you might imagine, was exploding, which is all in another day in the life.
I got a small taste of that Monday when writing a fairly inoffensive tweet about the reopening of Colorado restaurants for in-room dining, noting that while the Colorado Restaurant Association is understandably worried that the 50% capacity guidelines seemed too strict for restaurants to make a profit, many of us still worried that it wasn’t strict enough.
And I got slammed for it, which is nothing unusual. It comes with the gig. And more people, in fact, approved of the tweet than disapproved. But it was the anger at my apparent temerity in expressing concern that more people might become infected that struck me.
I was called a sissy who lived in a bubble and was trying to scare everyone and wasn’t a real man, and if I was needlessly afraid, couldn’t I just keep my mouth shut. Questioning the risk factor in reopening any part of the economy is apparently a trigger for the Trumpian right, the poor things.
The reopening of restaurants — even with strict guidelines — is a hugely symbolic moment in the course of the pandemic, a big step toward normalcy, not to mention a step toward saving some restaurants from closing altogether. It also, of course, comes with risk attached, as Polis agreed. He also said with outdoor dining, many restaurants could seat far more than 50%.
Thirty states now have some form of in-room dining. It was inevitable, just as the relaxing of stay-at-home rules was inevitable. Just as in some states — but not in Colorado — the reopening of bars, even more concerning, is inevitable.
Trends in Colorado seem to be pointing down. There doesn’t seem to have been any rebound — at least not yet — from easing stay-at-home restrictions. Testing, though, is still far below where it needs to be. Contact tracing is still far below where it needs to be. And as Rep. Steven Woodrow, D-Denver, tweeted me, “We’re 2nd to last in testing per 1MM, top 13 in deaths per 1MM, and a recent study suggested we’re 4th in contagion per person.”
And it should be noted that in 18 states, trends are going up, and a resurgence anywhere is certainly possible. Meanwhile, the medical scientists — remember Dr. Anthony Fauci? — say we should expect a return of the virus with a vengeance in the fall, maybe not too long after many schools reopen. The World Health Organization is warning against the assumption “that just because the disease is on the way down now that it’s going to stay down.”
What comes of all this may someday seem to have been inevitable, but at this point it’s still very much unknown. From the latest University of Colorado School of Public Health modeling comes the warning that unless those 60 or older maintain strict social distancing — which doesn’t mean going to restaurants — the state could face a hospital bed crisis in the fall.
In his news briefing Tuesday, Polis said he didn’t want to get too far ahead of himself with model warnings, but he agreed that seniors need to be 75% to 85% compliant in social distancing. He said as many as 90% of the deaths in Colorado have been seniors and that they are many more times likely to need hospitalization than someone, say, 40 years old.
Here’s what I do know — according to the polls, many people are not yet ready to embrace reopening. Many consumers won’t return until they feel safe. Fewer than half the country says it’s prepared to visit a restaurant. And it’s worth noting that the restaurant business was taking a huge hit before many states closed them for in-room dining.
Clearly the economy is now in deep recession, with as many as 40 million jobs having been lost. And yet, even as states reopen, the economic recovery, we’re told, will be slow. Nothing will be normal, in fact, until the virus is contained. And if we listen to science — still my first option — that must mean more testing and more contact tracing.
Meanwhile, the president hides his failures by continuing to insist that, instead of a massive federal response, the states — according to the 81-page COVID-19 Strategic Testing Plan — should be in charge of testing, contact tracing, finding those who are asymptomatic and having hospitals prepared in case of a resurgence.
It’s a shame-faced abdication of duty by Trump. And yet it’s Biden who wears the mask.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow. The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported news organization dedicated to covering the people, places and policies that matter in Colorado. Read more, sign up for free newsletters and subscribe at coloradosun.com.