OPINION: More questions than answers in officials’ push to reopen

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category icon COVID-19 coverage, Editorials, Opinion

We can understand why people are getting restless. 

After all, it’s nearly June and the lockdowns meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 have lasted far longer than anyone could have predicted. 

When the “stay home” orders first came down in late March, most public officials were talking about the shutdown in terms of weeks, not months. Many assumed children would finish the 2019-20 school year in their classrooms and that summer events would resume as planned. 

So it’s understandable that many people — including a handful of Washougal city councilors — are feeling frustrated by the ongoing restrictions on our daily lives and on our community’s businesses, schools and churches.

But rushing to reopen before asking if we are truly ready risks causing more harm than good.

Washougal officials pushing for a faster local reopening claim Governor Jay Inslee’s four-phase reopening plan ignores the needs of residents outside the city of Seattle. 

“(People) didn’t elect us just to say, ‘OK, the governor says this, so it’s obviously gospel, and we have to do exactly what he says.’ It all starts right here at the local level,” Washougal City Councilman Ray Kutch said last week. “The governor should be looking at this through many lenses, not just one, and I don’t think that’s happening.” 

Inslee’s plan for Washington is not, however, as the Washougal city councilors seem to be suggesting, a one-size-fits-all approach. In fact, on Tuesday, Inslee said Clark County is among 10 counties eligible to apply for Phase 2 reopening, which greatly expands small business reopenings and allows some small-group gatherings, if the county meets several other criteria. Clark County Public Health officials say they are reviewing the state’s metrics but “believe Clark County can meet the necessary criteria” to move into Phase 2. 

It is unclear what the Washougal councilors would like to see happen at a local level that is not already either occurring under the governor’s Phase 1 reopening — which allowed retailers to offer curbside pickups, re-opened landscaping and existing construction projects, allowed the reopening of businesses such as pet walkers and car washes and OK’d the return of golfing, fishing, hunting and some hiking in public lands — or will soon be happening under Phase 2.

What is clear, though, is that anyone pushing for a quick reopening and return to “normal” should also be screaming in the streets for stronger testing and contact tracing. 

“We aren’t diagnosing enough people and if we don’t have a testing system in place it will flare up again badly,” Yanis Ben Amor, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Development in the Earth Institute, told Vox reporters in mid-April. “We just don’t have that testing system, and as a human being I’m deeply concerned about the consequences for people who think their governor is saying it’s safe now.”

According to a May 7 report by National Public Radio, researchers from Harvard’s Global Health Institute have said we need to be conducting 900,000 COVID-19 tests per day on a national level. According to COVID Tracking Project, the country is currently testing an average of 365,000 people each day — only about 40 percent of what the experts tell us we need to keep the coronavirus at bay.

On a local level, Clark County Public Health shows that only about 1.5 percent of the county’s roughly 488,000 residents (7,613) have been tested for COVID-19. 

Officials pushing for faster local reopenings also should study what happened when cities prematurely lifted similar lockdowns during the 1918 flu epidemic, when a second surge killed more people than the original wave. 

“A lot of the confusion, in general, is premised on the misunderstanding that if you control the epidemic once, then you’re done. There’s no reason to think that,” a Harvard epidemiologist told USA Today’s editorial board in April. 

We would love to hear local officials give more information about what will happen once the lockdown is over. Instead of just crying “reopen,” we expect local officials to better address the types of issues that will help people feel comfortable “reopening” and returning to their pre-COVID routines.  

If we reopen before other areas in Washington state, will we have enough testing and contact tracing to tamp down any COVID-19 flare-ups? Will businesses be required to protect their customers and workers through proven protective measures such as requiring masks be worn, limiting the number of people inside confined spaces and setting up hand-sanitizing stations? Will these same officials call for another round of shutdowns if COVID-19 takes hold in the community later this summer or fall or even next winter? Will business owners protect vulnerable workers who fear returning to work too early but cannot afford to risk losing their unemployment benefits once the lockdown has lifted?

These are the types of questions local officials must answer before expecting the public to join them in their cries to end a lockdown that has proven effective at slowing the transmission of a deadly and highly contagious virus we still know very little about and for which we have no natural immunity, preventative vaccine or proven treatments.