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Is Reopening an Economy Worth the Lives of Its Workers?

We shouldn't be casually equating the health of the economy with the health of the desperate, helpless people who labor on the front lines.

A customer gets a haircut on the first day that Georgia re-opened salons, spas, gyms and bowling alleys. (Jenny Jarvie/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Public officials often must make life and death decisions, and rarely has that been more true than now that the coronavirus has disrupted our financial, physical and emotional lives. But in moving to rev and open up state and local economies, they should not be guided by economics alone. They must also be guided by moral values and a belief that all of human life is precious.

On the state level, governors, presumably after consulting with professional staff, will make the call on what and when businesses can reopen and when to end social distancing. In their deliberations and public statements, I have been deeply disturbed by some casually equating the life of our economy with the lives of human beings. I am uncomfortable with the notion that it is acceptable to endanger the health of workers, so many of whom are low-wage employees who have to interface directly with the public. If these workers were to become infected with COVID-19, they would run a serious risk of, in turn, infecting their families and communities. The painful cycle of closing down communities would start over again, but how many more would have died unnecessarily?

In my home state of Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp was slow to order residents to stay home and non-essential businesses to close, although Atlanta and some other cities mandated those steps much earlier. And last week Georgia became the first state to begin moving to reopen its economy despite lacking capacity for widespread coronavirus testing or a plan to address the social determinants of health. No one would suggest that COVID-19 has been defeated in Georgia: Over the first two days after the governor partially lifted the lockdown, the state reported about 1,000 new confirmed coronavirus cases per day and two dozen deaths.

Kemp allowed restaurants to resume dine-in service and certain other businesses, including hair and nail salons, gyms, bowling alleys, and massage and tattoo parlors, to reopen under conditions that seem impossible to enforce and unlikely to effectively keep the virus from spreading. Recently I read about a reopened restaurant in the exurbs of Atlanta that requires staff to wear faceguards along with gloves and masks. The optics of this are of customers dining in a hazardous bio lab with servers wearing hazmat suits. It would be comical were it not sadly necessary. This picture, alone, suggests that these businesses probably should not be open at this point.

It's not that the public is demanding that their communities' economies be restarted now. In a recent University of Georgia poll, 62 percent of Georgians said Kemp was moving too fast to reopen the state, while only 10 percent opposed the statewide lockdown. And nationally, a recent Axios-Ipsos poll found that 88 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Republicans were concerned about their communities opening too soon.

Since Georgia began its partial reopening, at least a dozen other states have moved to follow suit and others plan to do so soon. With all the unknowns, why are states willing to risk undermining the progress they've made over the past two months in flattening the curve of the virus? The answer seems to be driven by several factors. One is strong influences from business leaders who don't want to see the economy shut down for too long and profits to continue to plummet. And, sadly, some of the groups most negatively impacted by the virus are minorities, low-wage earners, sick elderly people, and those with underlying health conditions, groups that have always been considered by some to be superfluous to the American economy. Finally, the political fallout of entering a national election in November with high unemployment and low GDP is nothing any party in power would want.

The future will reveal much about the true soul of America. It will tell us who we really are at heart. Will more public officials prematurely reopen their economies, sending desperate, helpless workers onto the frontlines of the virus, risking spreading it to their families and communities? Or will they follow the advice of scientists, doctors and other professionals who have been dealing with the pandemic up close and personal?

As public officials answer these questions, they must prioritize people over profits. They must make sure that when they decide how to proceed in this crisis they do so with an understanding that life is precious and that at the end of their days of public service they will have only their good names to take with them.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

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