To work, quarantine measures and other steps to control disease require broad public buy-in. If that vital ingredient is lacking, all the best practices grounded in the latest science from leading doctors and researchers simply aren't going to work.
Minnesota does not yet have COVID-19 under control and on Thursday, the day after Gov. Tim Walz announced a controversial light touch on the reopening "dial," there were 32 new deaths reported in the state. That's the highest daily tally to date.
To send that number back to zero, energetic cooperation is required from the public. There's no vaccine or proven treatment for COVID-19, so the best defenses are hand-washing, social distancing and face coverings.
But if public support for them is fracturing, and it appears to be, Walz needs to reconsider current strategy, particularly for restaurants. Flexible guidelines followed by more people are better than rigid ones that increasingly inspire open defiance or covert end-runs around them.
There's been plenty of political point-scoring by legislators who decry restrictions on businesses but have yet to offer up a detailed plan of their own to guard against COVID-19's spread. But this week brought game-changing developments.
On Wednesday, Walz's dial-turning kept in place a 10-person gathering size limit for churches, synagogues and mosques. And while outdoor dining with restrictions was allowed for restaurants, inside dining remains a no-go, disappointing struggling restaurant owners and their patrons.
Soon after the governor's announcement, the Minnesota Catholic Conference sent a terse rejection to Walz. In it, the state's Roman Catholic bishops give parishes permission to resume the public celebration of mass on May 26. Their plan to do so allows for gathering sizes of more than 10 where sanctuaries are large enough to maintain social distancing.
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) in Minnesota, which also sent a letter to Walz, has a similar plan.
The restaurant and lodging industry's rhetoric also took a sharper turn this week, with Hospitality Minnesota calling the continued indoor dining restrictions, as well as those remaining on campgrounds, "another disastrous setback." The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce outlined similar concerns in a Wednesday letter that revealed eroding support in the business community. The challenge ahead for Walz is appropriate given his military background. He needs to embrace a "win the war, not just the battle" strategy.
From a public health standpoint, his new recommendations reflect best practices. The governor's concerns about places of worship are on point, as the Editorial Board argued Thursday. Those who ask why it's OK to open up malls but not churches have not done their homework. In churches, like hospitals and long-term care centers, high rates of transmission are known to occur.
But if growing backlash to these restrictions undermines social distancing, this is a defeat, not a victory. Inflexibility now may also weaken support for future measures if the disease flares again.
Does this mean flinging open church doors and saying "let'er rip" at restaurants? No. But the Catholic bishops and LCMS also aren't advocating a free-for-all, either. Their plan is to allow larger but still controlled attendance, as well as taking other protective measures, which seems workable. Allowing bigger outdoor services this summer, which many Minnesota churches are hoping for, must also be on the table.
As for restaurants, there are compromises that could be made as well. Is there a way, as Iowa has done, to be more flexible in counties not hard hit by the virus? Many restaurant owners were surprised by Wednesday's announcement. Walz should at least give them more guidance on when the next phase of reopening — including in-restaurant dining with restrictions — is likely to begin.
Walz and other governors have been put in a tough spot by the Trump administration, which has issued reopening guidelines and then tossed them aside, leaving states to navigate individually.
Endurance is an underestimated but critical part of the strategy to contain COVID-19. The public is weary but will need to keep up its guard for the long haul until a vaccine is developed. Flexibility now to sensibly spell some of that fatigue will pay dividends down the road.