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The Challenge of Open

The balancing act of opening up while avoiding spread requires much caution and planning.

Shutting things down is hard, but minimizing transmission of pestilence in anything approaching normal conditions is at least an order of magnitude harder. Avoiding it entirely would require far more than what society is willing (perhaps able) to do.

We must recognize that opening up a bit means the containment will be less than it has been. It means some people will get sick, and some of those will die. It’s the nature of opening things up, just as some fraction of cases today still occurred under the relatively closed conditions we have.

The trade-off of opening up a bit is to be prepared to test and trace and isolate cases. Not doing so, and not planning to do so, invites uncontrolled spread and a fast retreat to stay-home.

A good mental model is cars. We have done a ton to make cars safer. Seatbelts, airbags, licensing, crumple zones, and so forth. They aren’t completely safe. People still die from car crashes. But we’ve tried to minimize that harm. The plans being worked on by businesses and governments are similarly designed.

They are weighing all sorts of options and considering the logistics, acceptability to customers and the public. Like on the Apollo 13 mission, trying to connect a square CO₂ scrubber to a round air exchanger takes a lot of thinking through. Unlike that mission, the danger is mostly contained as long as people stay home and the clock is more about trying to get people where they can work safely.

For example, if you went to a fine dining establishment, how would you feel about having the wait staff instruct you how to bus your own dishes or wipe your own table? Is that something we can comfortably ask the public to do? Or do we stick to take-out only, depriving work from those who would normally be in the dining rooms? Or do restaurants switch to disposable tableware and some easy way to biohazard the entire table in one fell swoop? Or some other option? What are the risks? What are the costs? How do we balance it all?

For example, with grocery delivery in-demand, can stores work with delivery services to streamline the process, to minimize transmission, improve contact tracing, and increase service throughput?

There are tons of businesses and they all need solutions that fit their business and the community. Some of them will make mistakes.

But the number one tool we have is technology. All manner of businesses need to look at how they can use phones and computers to rework their business so that contact is minimized. And that’s going to require new software. Now more than ever it should be built with standard interfaces, where one app can be used by multiple businesses rather than requiring every last business to have a custom app built. We simply do not have the developer bandwidth to do the latter.

It’s a heavy lift. But the alternative of an unprepared reopening—something some states might try (and something that, unfortunately, many on the right media are urging)—will see another spike and more death than necessary. And the economy will still be worse off for those states, after they have to tuck tail and deal with another round of stay home. Their citizens will be less willing to trust those governments, and they will be watching on TV as the slow-and-steady states see slow-and-steady improvements.

Society has been wounded by the virus. We are convalescing and have fresh stitches. Communities that try to get up and run will tear their stitches and have to be rushed to get themselves sewn back up and then back to bedrest. Places that take it slow, cautious, will heal faster and be back on their feet.

Unfortunately, with interstate travel, there’s always the risk of the stitch-tearer bungling into another patient, tearing her stitches too. The virus can bloom in a foolish state and infect a smart state anew.

As things do open up a bit, remember that you have the right to say no. If you think the precautions are inadequate, you should seek alternatives. If a business is asking you as a customer or worker to do something you think is unsafe, you should speak up.


In some other universe, Americans are seeing a coordinated federal response to the pandemic and, for the first time in decades, they are seeing what the machine, firing on all cylinders, is capable of. It must be a thing to behold, but sadly we are deprived it and its comfort in these trying times.