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COVID-19 second wave possibility unpredictable if economy opens

Downtown Ann Arbor
Katie Raymond
Michigan Radio

Some politicians and businesses are pressuring Governor Gretchen Whitmer to reopen the economy. Republican legislative leaders have a plan to phase in business operations.  It’s very difficult to make an informed decision about opening the economy because no one has enough data to know exactly how risky it could be.

People are still getting sick and people are still dying from COVID-19 in Michigan. So Governor Whitmer says opening the economy could be deadly.

“Reopening safely. What does that look like? And how do we make sure that that when we are able to reengage, that we do so in a way that prevents a second spike? Because I can tell you, as tough as this has been, if we have to come back to this position in a month or two, it will be absolutely devastating,” Whitmer said last week.

Some businesses such as lawn care service operators believe they can operate safely. The Republican phase-in plan would prioritize businesses in areas of the state that they believe could safely open.

But one expert says businesses need to be careful.

“You know, if you're a business person, you want to get back in business because you're losing money every day, but you don't want your employees to die," said Erik Gordon, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

He adds the pressure being put on politicians is based on people who are losing money, people who are chafing from government restrictions, and people who don’t fully understand the risks that come with putting people in close contact again.

"Politicians are used to being criticized no matter what they do. You might as well be criticized for doing the right thing. I think there should just be some level headed common sense thinking, less rhetoric, more thought,” Gordon said.

He adds that thought should be based on science. And science indicates a second spike, a second wave of infection is a real possibility if businesses open without social distancing and protection from infection.

Kristen Jackson owns two Sweetwaters Coffee and Tea franchises. She’s not open to the public, but she is operating. People are donating food and drinks from her stores to health care workers and grocery store employees. They order ahead and pick up without coming into contact with Jackson’s employees.

But she is thinking about the day when the economy opens back up. She’s installing plexiglass shields at the counter. She’s removing some tables so there’s more space between customers. And she’s making sure she has masks and gloves for her staff.

"I know it's not 100 percent effective, but at least it's something. But we would still take measures to be able to operate and let people in the stores, but be very, very cautious because it's not like it's just going to go away after May 1st or whatever," she said.

The face-to-face contact will still be a risk and she wishes there were more ways to protect everyone.

“I mean, it would be nice if we had some sort of fund to be able to provide maybe the public with masks and gloves and hand sanitizer as they come into our establishment. And then dispose of them on the way out. But you know, we don't have the funds for that,” Jackson said.

Dr. Nigel Paneth is a Professor of Epidemiology at Michigan State University. He says before you consider opening up the economy, you need to better understand COVID-19. What’s missing is testing. He says not nearly enough testing has been done to determine how this pandemic might course through the population. That means opening the economy is gambling with lives.

“If before testing, we open up too quickly, we could see a resurgence of cases and deaths,” he explained.

Paneth says he understands that the financial pressures are serious.

“If you said, look, the economy cannot sustain itself. We can't wait until we can test. Then, of course, you have to take as many precautions as you possibly can: masking, distancing, gloving, all the things that people are now doing are transferred to the businesses,” he said.

Even then, everyone has to understand there could be a terrible price until enough immunity is established in the population or a vaccine is discovered.

Michigan Radio listeners, readers, and reporters are rising to the challenge every day. If you can, please support essential journalism during this crisis.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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