The site uses cookies that you may not want. Continued use means acceptance. For more information see our privacy policy.

Where are We in this Thing?

Considering, at this late date, where we are in the response to the virus crisis.

It’s a good question, and one which doesn’t have a good answer. We don’t really have a consistent story of which states are doing what, much less what individuals are doing. The economic force, which is major, seems to be overpowering the protective force. A backfire is the major risk, with some areas of the country already seeing rises while others continue to fall.

The main challenge is, will the various governments be aware enough to catch new outbreaks early, and even if they do, will the stacks of human cordwood, that have their sights set on beaches and beer and all that, heed the call if a small flare-up risks becoming a five-alarm blaze?

The cordwood looks to do the heavy lifting, at least in the South, where the business community has caught the eye of the political class and they will not listen to science. If your area has an outbreak, and your government says all is well, believe the science. Practice the rules of prevention. At the least, you won’t be contributing to someone else’s misery with a deadly virus by not spreading it.

You don’t want to pass it on to your family or your hunting buddy, no matter how good a beer at the bar sounds.

Governments that are unwilling to follow science will be governments that find themselves without support in elections to come, and states that ignore science will be states that find people and businesses leaving. The short-term economy is currently the enemy of the long-term, in that sense.

What’s supposed to have happened is that testing would ramp up and tracing would ramp up and best practices, tailored to the business, would ramp up. Instead, testing is slowly getting better, but is unlikely to get to the levels really needed with asymptomatic transmission. Tracing doesn’t really do much without adequate testing. It has some marginal benefit, some localized protection, but not a ton if you don’t have the testing to feed it.

Best practices rely heavily on strong communication skills and coordination, but without governments leading on that, it’s a very sloppy and mixed effort. Some states aren’t even publishing their numbers honestly. (Same for nations.)

Think back on driver’s ed, and that old two-second rule. That you should be at least two seconds behind the car ahead, which means more distance at higher speeds. That you need that reaction time.

With our current trajectory in the pandemic, our lag time comes in around a couple weeks. That’s for the governments to act. Add at least a couple more days for the most aware citizens to act. Then a few more for the next half. The remainder, God knows.


At each stage of this crisis, there is an opportunity, there is time to be used to effect whatever changes make sense for the next moment. The administration hasn’t used any of them to do that.

  1. Early warning of emergent threat. The administration could have started ramping up PPE at that point, briefed governors on the basic playbook. They did neither. Donald John Trump turned a blind eye.
  2. Early domestic phase. Could have begun shutting down the largest of gatherings, put us on a kind of half-open footing some states are entering on reopening. Donald John Trump lied that it wouldn’t amount to anything.
  3. First wave hitting. Ramping testing up quickly. Work on mitigation plans for reopening. Donald John Trump Still said it would quickly vanish.
  4. First wave began to taper off. Begin demonstrations of how various workplaces should be operating. Have tracing network ready. Donald John Trump and his team chose to push to reopen without any real plan or messaging beyond that.
  5. Reopening begins. Donald John Trump and his daughter and son-in-law are not planning for how to handle new outbreaks, much less a new wave.

And that’s where we are in this thing.

The Oddity of Opening

Reopening prematurely and without adequate measures planned just makes no sense.

The polling and reporting tells the following story:

  1. Most people think that the measures aren’t there to reopen.
  2. Republican-connected groups have been pushing protests to reopen.
  3. Based on that, some Republican governors have been getting ahead of themselves and reopening.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. While some businesses have a majority of Republicans supporting reopening, a lot do not, and even where there’s a majority, it’s still split (though maybe less or more if you factor in margins of error). There is, once again, a minority Republican view being pressed and causing policy here.

More importantly, there’s a huge business case to be made to pay what’s actually needed to reopen (testing and tracing). It could even be done in a VAT or similar vehicle! But instead of doing it correctly, there are businesses pushing for blanket immunity.

The self-described pro-business lobbies always seemed a bit fucked in the head, but they’re really smashing the old Budweiser can on their forehead this time. If the virus gets worse, all those businesses that reopen will just keep losing revenue. Immunity from lawsuits doesn’t pay bills.

It’s been months now, coming up on five if you count from when the administration had a heads-up from the intelligence community. There’s been ample time to stand up supply chains, to ramp up testing. They haven’t been able to do it.

The problem is this: most people in most states aren’t going to be John Rambo, so most will stay home. Business revenue won’t be improving in the way the open-uppers think it will. But there also won’t be a viable way to open up more or get people back in public, because they still aren’t working on test-trace. So the economy stays a bummer, the virus stays a plateau, and we continue to waste time and money spinning our wheels. It’s stupid. It’s ridiculous. It’s Donald John Trump.

In order for an economy to function, you need supply and demand. The supply is shut for health reasons, but also for demand reasons. Even before stay-home orders hit, many businesses were seeing demand plummet. There is demand—aspirational, “wouldn’t it be nice” demand. But there is not “I’m getting in the car, let’s go now” demand, and there won’t be unless and until there’s a good bet you won’t get sick.

From a numbers point of view, if even 50% of regular demand is there, that’s probably not enough, and if new upticks in cases happen even under depressed demand, that 50% will drop even lower and won’t recover the next time a reopen is attempted.

From a numbers point of view, the cost of the shutdown is very high, far higher than what it would cost to implement real testing and tracing, and yet… the governments are still not saying that. They aren’t doing that. They are ignoring the facts that are plain as day.

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.