We are four days into a long-term process of finding a new normal. One commentator recently called it the “new abnormal”, describing this new state of business in which we simultaneously try to re-open closed industries while still holding the general public safety in an appropriate place of precedence over all other considerations.
One week ago, Governor Abbott released the Open Texas Plan – which can be downloaded here in its entirety. A survey of over 700 businesses in Williamson county found that nearly 70% of respondents felt that it was safe for their employees and customers to begin to ease off from operational restrictions. Read the full survey analysis here. This is a clear indication that, according to the business community of Williamson County, the governor’s order was appropriate.
No plan articulating an effort this broad can be perfect; certainly not in a state like Texas with its diverse communities and one of the largest economies in the nation. It cannot anticipate everything. In fact, less than one week after its release, changes had been proposed and are likely to be made soon. This amounts to making appropriate adjustments as we learn more about how well the plan works. More changes should be made allowing for new circumstances as they arise.
So, today we are in the earliest phase of the process. Our first easing of restrictions. According to health officials we will not know the impact of these steps until about May 15.
It is useful to remember what the objectives of this effort are, and what they are not.
Recall, the unprecedented business operation restrictions enacted were put in place to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Limiting the spread of the virus was not done to prevent most people from being infected, but rather to prevent so many infections that the capacity of healthcare systems would be overwhelmed. This strategy does minimize preventable deaths from COVID-19, but it also necessarily increases the amount of time our society must manage this new disease.
The social distancing practices that were mandated, painful though they have been for businesses and people, appear to have met these objectives. Healthcare providers in the Austin MSA have not been overwhelmed with cases to the point that treatable patients could not receive necessary help. Social distancing is working, but social distancing must continue in many ways to ensure that we do not overwhelm the healthcare system in the future.
Of course, this does not mitigate the unspeakable tragedy resulting from so many deaths due to COVID-19. More than 60,000 American families are mourning the loss of loved ones who should still be with us.
Simultaneously, another tragedy is unravelling in the lives of millions of Americans. The kind of tragedy that is not as dire as the death of a loved one, but the slower painful progression that comes with the loss of your job, or the inability of your small business to pay its employees or its bills. This is the tragedy that more than thirty million Americans now find themselves in.
This economic stasis cannot last indefinitely. Texas must find its new “abnormal”. The new state that balances our legitimate needs to return to work – but to do so in a way that provides clear operating guidelines for how we can conduct commerce safely.
It is a false choice to frame this as a binary choice. It is wrong to view our opportunity now as only a question of choosing economic renewal at the expense of American lives – versus – ensuring public health at the expense of our livelihoods. Developing a way to reopen the economy does not necessitate unnecessary loss of lives. We can both return to work – and – keep Americans safe.
The greatness of the open market system lies within its ability to most efficiently adjust to changes. In this case, public health officials have provided us guidelines for how to conduct our business in a way that still limits the spread of COVID-19. Likewise, business and industry will change to operate within those guidelines to remain relevant in the new economy. Our nation has been changed, without question. Collectively we can find a way to return to business without unnecessarily risking the lives and health of our neighbors.
The governor’s plan included two characteristics that followed the recommendations from health and science experts: a phased approach and testing before moving to the next phase. Texas is NOT returning to full operations this week. Rather, we are following a measured process to re-engage in work, then measure the impact and adjust plans before taking the next step.
Opening Texas must be based on cautions implementation, followed by measurement, and readjustment before moving on. It also must be based on the will to be patient in times of great stress. As we reopen, cases of COVID-19 are expected to increase again – but not to the point that healthcare systems are overwhelmed.
Expanded testing will be essential to both inform policy makers about which measures are working and which are not. However, expanded testing will also be a necessary foundation that will give consumers the confidence to return to engaging in economic activity.
I believe central Texas can weather this storm. The success of Round Rock Cares is an excellent example of how we choose to define our future together. A similar federally funded Williamson County program will provide more support to local businesses soon. If there is one consistent theme that I have heard from everyone in recent weeks it is this, “we are in it together”. This week, let’s continue to be cautious and safe, but balance that caution with informed optimism. We owe it to ourselves and to our community to move forward together.