Faced with a situation modern society has never encountered before, it’s not surprising that there will be different opinions about what are the best steps to take in dealing with it. No one on this planet has dealt with a foe quite like this novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf first asked all “non-life-sustaining businesses” to voluntarily have their employees work from home, or otherwise cease operations at their physical locations. Not that many businesses complied.
On March 19, he made the policy mandatory. His office said in a statement, “Enforcement actions against businesses that do not close physical locations will begin at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, March 21.” The list of businesses impacted can be found at www.bit.ly/paessentialbusinesses.
There was a quick and angry response from some Republicans in Harrisburg. Republican leadership issued a statement that said, “The Wolf Administration set off a panic tonight throughout the Commonwealth with its edict to shut down employers. The ill-prepared actions, announced after normal business hours, are not only an economic blow to every worker in the state right now but will [also] have ramifications long into the future.
“Any announcement in an emergency event such as this calls for clear and efficient lines of communication, but the open-ended and short-noticed announcement today is the complete opposite and only adds to the sense of chaos many Pennsylvanians are struggling with tonight.”
Senator Lisa Baker, on the other hand, said she is working to blunt the impact of the order. She wrote, “Any company that believes they should be considered a life-sustaining-business can apply for a waiver at this email address: RAfirstname.lastname@example.org. Business owners can address questions about whether they need to close by emailing email@example.com.
“Senator Baker is also encouraging businesses and non-profits who have suffered economic losses during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak to consider applying for low-interest loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).”
In New York on March 18, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered businesses to reduce the workforce at physical locations by half of its normal number. On March 19, Cuomo raised that to 75 percent. On March 20, he upped the order to include 100 percent of employees at non-exempt businesses. The order came as the number of COVID-19 infections in the state began to explode.
Officials in Sullivan County, meanwhile, are asking visitors to stay away because the county has limited healthcare resources. The county depends on tourism for revenue more than just about every other industry, yet officials consider it best to have visitors stay at home for the time being.
These and other similar decisions are being made in locations around the country and the globe. Shutting down businesses and jamming the breaks on the economy is painful, and it’s surely going to get more painful before the situation starts to ease. But the experts say shutting down the economy is necessary to reduce the density of infections in an effort to prevent the pandemic from overwhelming the healthcare system.
If serious cases of COVID-19 don’t explode over the course of the next week or two, and don’t swamp the healthcare system, the critics will say Cuomo and Wolf and local officials went too far; these actions themselves, in fact, will have been what prevented the explosion in cases. Most likely, however, the number of COVID-19 cases will in fact overwhelm the healthcare system in some states, and critics will say the governors didn’t go far enough.
Meanwhile, the hardest-hit states are already running low on masks, gowns, ventilators and other essential medical equipment necessary to battle the virus. When the dust settles at the end of it all, the likely conclusion will be that officials did not initially act boldly enough in trying to contain the virus rather than they acted too boldly.
From this vantage point, it looks like the shutdown is the right thing to do.