This week, we report on the cautious reopening of The River School in Memphis, Tenn. The Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque, Iowa, is also reopening June 1, as are some locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi River (with restrictions). It’s all part of a general, if partial, reopening. The country seems to have reached a collective turning point in the COVID-19 crisis. While some governors and mayors are talking about extending some parts of their lockdowns into June and even until July, all 50 states have begun some kind of limited reopening.
The data are now giving a better picture, even as much remains unclear. The disease curve appears to be flattening in most places. Thankfully, hospitals were not overwhelmed, as was forecast early in the pandemic. A number of temporary facilities erected by the Corps of Engineers and local authorities have been taken down. In fact, some hospitals are closing because of restrictions, and because some people are still afraid to go there for non-COVID reasons. The fact that a large percentage of COVID fatalities are thought to be in nursing homes is tragic but does indicate where risk is concentrated.
The ramp-up in testing is key to reopening, experts say. Oxford University researchers say 12 million Americans have been tested as of May 20. According to Johns Hopkins University, more than 1.53 million Americans have been infected with SARS-Cov-2 (the virus that causes the disease) as of May 18. As testing expands still further, it’s likely to uncover more people who have had the disease but showed no symptoms or had symptoms too mild to be noticed or to prompt hospital visits. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently announced $11 billion in funding for testing and contact-tracing initiatives at the state and local level.
We know now that risk profiles are different in different parts of the country. Cases seem to be holding steady or decreasing in some areas while still increasing in others (in part due to increased testing). This should mean that reopening could proceed at different paces in different places.
Partial reopening does not mean COVID-19 is going away. It remains a threat, and prudent precautions still need to be taken. And they will be. Some places of worship, for example, are reopening but requiring six feet of distance between worshipers. Restaurants will also be practicing distancing. Mask-wearing will continue in many situations. Many businesses have learned to operate remotely, and some will continue to do so. On the rivers, too, some practices adopted during the virus crisis will likely continue indefinitely.
There seems to be a recognition among politicians and ordinary Americans alike that the stringent lockdown conditions that have cost millions of jobs cannot continue indefinitely. Nor can they last until we have a COVID-19 vaccine (as some politicians have suggested), which could be a year or longer away.
We hope unlocking pent-up demand for goods and services will help return some Americans to their jobs. Local governments need taxes from operating businesses, hospitals need to stay open, and employment needs to grow again. River workers, other essential workers and ordinary Americans have shown extraordinary determination, patience, teamwork and resiliency in meeting the many challenges of COVID-19. Those challenges will be with us for a long time. But returning some Americans to employment and at least partially restarting the economy should leave us in better shape as we chart a course for the long struggle ahead.