States are at a critical juncture in the COVID-19 pandemic. Some, like Minnesota, which has one of the nation’s lowest confirmed infection rates, appear to be bending the curve. That has provided a chance to develop a thoughtful plan for controlling the spread while slowly, carefully, restarting the economy.
The hardest part will be resisting the urge to return to a normal that no longer exists. Minnesota needs a new normal, one that coexists warily with a highly contagious, sometimes lethal virus that has no proven treatment and no vaccine. To deny that is to invite more disease, more death, and squander the time earned during the painful shutdown.
So how to proceed? You’re seeing it already. Grocers, with no choice but to stay open, have learned to adapt in real time. The best of them now wipe carts before and after customers use them — and in front of them — giving shoppers confidence. They’ve hired extra workers whose main task is cleaning — PIN pads, counters, doorknobs, any frequently touched surfaces. They limit store occupancy. They mark lines for social distancing. Some issue reusable masks to employees. Sneeze guards separate cashiers from customers.
Rod Johansen, CEO of HOM Furniture stores, said his company has already developed a protocol for reopening its closed stores. Aided by the sheer size of its showrooms, HOM will provide “the safety and hygiene needed.” It will cost more, he said, “but we already spend a fair amount to bring customers into the store. The additional cost of these practices won’t be prohibitive for us.”
Businesses willing to make similar adaptations could be good candidates for reopening. This will depend on customers also abiding by established guidelines. We all have a part to play in creating a new normal.
The foundation of reopening must be more testing. How much more? Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the FDA under President Donald Trump, recently laid out a detailed plan to reopen the economy that calls for 750,000 tests nationally. Per week. It also calls for vigorous contact tracing and a far more robust public health infrastructure. Gov. Tim Walz has called for 40,000 tests per week — and together Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota may soon be able to meet that need.
None of this will be easy. But it’s necessary to rebuild public confidence shattered by a swift and deadly virus that has claimed more than 34,000 American lives in a breathtakingly short period. Federal and state leaders can create their own timetables for “reopening the economy,” but in the final analysis, success will depend on individuals regaining the confidence to try on clothing at a store, send their kid to a summer camp, grab a booth at their favorite restaurant, go to an art fair, or take in a ballgame.
Johansen noted that at the two stores he has open, in Sioux Falls and Fargo, in states without shutdown orders, customer behavior has changed dramatically. Customers scour the website to narrow down selections. They call in with questions. Only when they’re ready to buy do they come in, he said. “The average customer has cut their time in store by 50 percent — it’s in and out.” Returning to a robust economy, he said, “is going to take time.”
Walz told an editorial writer that business leaders such as Johansen and others recognize that “this is all about restoring trust. These businesses know it’s not just about opening the doors.” The state, he said, is learning from businesses that have adapted. “We are looking to them to help us innovate,” he said. Government’s part, he said, has to be the ability to test, trace and deal with outbreaks.
Walz said he is re-evaluating the stay-at-home order, now set to expire May 4. “We will continue to modify it wherever we can.” But in doing so, he said, “we need to guard against false expectations and overconfidence.”
Minnesota is blessed with stellar local resources that include the U and Mayo, along with civic-minded business leaders committed to protecting their workers, customers and the larger community. There will be disagreements on how to proceed, but there should be no doubt that everyone wants to come through this with as little damage to life, health and the economy as possible.
“As long as we’re moving in a direction that’s better,” Walz said, “that’s all we can hope for right now.”