Why Are the States Reopening?

The public overwhelmingly supports continued social-distancing measures.

Charlie Riedel / AP

As of this week, all 50 states have begun reopening to some degree from counter-pandemic measures.

That’s a remarkable milestone, and a big shift in policy in a short period of time. It might be cause for celebration if it were clearly rooted in either public opinion or public-health data. But the reopening comes as case numbers in many parts of the country continue to rise, experts warn of further danger, and a significant majority of the country remains in favor of social-distancing measures. It appears that a small slice of the population, led by the president of the United States, has managed to drive this momentous and risky move.

Health data don’t suggest that the U.S. is at the end of the pandemic. Growth in cases throughout the United States overall has slowed, but it continues to expand in some places. Public-health experts have warned that reopening could drive a resurgence in cases. Much about COVID-19 is unclear, and we don’t know for certain that reopening will drive new cases. Georgia, for example, hasn’t seen a surge since dropping restrictions, though experts warn that it’s too soon for the data to say much. Anthony Fauci has said that a second wave of the disease later this year is “inevitable.”

Yet states led by governors of both parties have moved forward on plans to reopen, even those where the COVID-19 caseload continues to rise. Take North Carolina, where Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, announced a new phase of opening this week—even though the number of coronavirus diagnoses in the state is still increasing. The Republican leader in the state Senate, who has been a proponent of reopening, praised the move.

“I’m glad the governor has responded to the calls of senators, small-business owners, and unemployed workers to let them get back to work,” state Senator Phil Berger said in a statement. But he added: “It seems strange that it was unsafe to reopen last week, but it’s safe to reopen now with worse numbers.” Berger meant this as a question about why Cooper wasn’t moving faster, but it is perhaps a stronger argument in the opposite direction: Why is he moving at all?

As the White House has pointed out, sometimes with great frustration, policy makers have to balance concerns that public-health officials don’t, including the economy and public opinion. Yet neither of these makes an especially strong case for reopening.

President Donald Trump has issued strong calls for reopening, saying that doing so will revive an economy knocked flat by the pandemic. The problem is that there’s not much evidence that simply dropping restrictions will save the economy, even as it does create health risks. States that have loosened the rules haven’t seen economic activity bounce back to anywhere near pre-crisis levels.

At a Senate hearing this week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin echoed his boss’s line, saying there’s a danger of permanent damage to the economy if businesses don’t reopen now. But Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell differed from Mnuchin, saying that economic and public-health concerns can’t be separated. “The No. 1 thing, of course, is people believing that it’s safe to go back to work so they can go out,” he said. “That’s what it will take for people to regain confidence.”

Politicians seldom take major, risky steps without knowing that public opinion is behind them, and that makes the decisions by governors to reopen all the stranger. As I have written, public opinion is astonishingly united behind social-distancing measures. Across party lines and geographic regions, Americans think that caution is prudent and restrictions are smart. They believe wearing a face mask is more about public health than personal choice. And they hold these views even, or especially, when it means personal sacrifice.

It is true that the partisan divide on anti-coronavirus measures has been growing in recent days. Yet what this polling suggests is not the typical Democrats-versus-Republicans split, but instead a difference of opinion within the Republican Party. And even then, governors of both parties are, in many specific instances, embracing a minority opinion within their party.

The haste to reopen, in defiance of medical expertise, economic data, and public opinion, is thus peculiar. The most obvious possibility is that it is a testament to the power of the presidential bully pulpit and intense media coverage. Earlier this month, I wrote that the unity behind social distancing “should serve as a warning to governors and a rebuke to the press. The protests in state capitols have gained extensive attention, but—despite the vocal support of the president—the activists remain part of a fringe movement.”

That warning was unheeded. Trump continues to beat the drum, and the protests continue to garner attention outside their numbers. But that’s not a static situation. Extensive coverage of both can help shift public opinion—turning what is not an especially partisan situation into a polarized one, a process that’s already in progress. And as the split widens, more Republicans are likely to take the partisan cue they’re receiving and turn against closures and distancing, in a feedback loop.

Perhaps the experts are wrong, and there won’t be a significant resurgence in cases. But if they are right, this shift will make it harder for governors and localities to reimpose safety measures that have become a partisan litmus test. On Thursday, during a visit to Michigan, Trump was asked about the prospect of a second wave, and he allowed that it might happen but said mass closures wouldn’t be necessary.

“We’re not going to close the country; we’re going to put out the fires,” he said. “Whether it’s an ember or a flame, we’re going to put it out. But we’re not closing our country.”

One of the lessons of the past few years, in firefighting and politics alike, is that once the conflagration has been set, it doesn’t always behave the way people want or expect.