Officials preparing public for long-term disruption
Political leaders around the country are beginning to warn their constituents that the major disruptions to their everyday lives caused by the spreading coronavirus will last far beyond the temporary shutdowns that are so far in place.
The states and cities that have ordered schools and businesses closed have set two- or three-week limits, in hopes of stemming the spread of the virus. But public officials are increasingly warning that the closures are likely to last far longer.
“Don’t anticipate schools are going to open in a week. Don’t anticipate schools are going to open in a few weeks,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said at a press conference Tuesday. “I would plan and assume that it’s unlikely that many of these schools, few, if any, will open before the summer break.”
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) told reporters his state’s growing outbreak would not peak for 45 days, long beyond the closures already scheduled there.
Governors in other states are already making plans to shutter events scheduled weeks or months away. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has proposed delaying elections scheduled for May. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Tuesday moved the planned April 28 presidential primary to June, a recognition that the virus is unlikely to be under control even six weeks from now.
“That’s a discussion that people are having all over the country,” Hogan told The Hill in an interview. “It’s very possible that [the epidemic] could be much, much longer.”
The potential for a months-long shutdown of both civic and business institutions will exacerbate what already threatens to become one of the worst economic crises in modern history. Airline industry analysts have said that most carriers will fall into bankruptcy by the end of May; the restaurant industry estimated its businesses would lose $225 billion in the United States alone; economic analysts have projected the largest global contraction since World War II.
But such drastic steps are necessary to slow the spread of the pandemic coronavirus, in part because its geographic distribution is so uneven. The virus first emerged in China, but the epicenter has largely shifted to Europe, which is struggling with thousands of newly confirmed cases every day. And the number of cases in the United States is tracking right behind Europe, experts warn.
“This is not going to be one monolithic outbreak and peak. This is going to be a whole series of local outbreaks and epidemics that bloom into a national epidemic,” said Michael Osterholm, who heads the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Prevention at the University of Minnesota. “Everybody’s approaching this like this is a hurricane event. I think we they have to understand that this can play out for a lot of weeks.”
The ebb and flow of the global outbreak could prove similar to the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918. An early wave of the virus swept the globe in the spring, only to recede and return with a vengeance in the fall. That second wave infected and killed far more people globally than the first wave.
As the Trump administration and Congress race to craft a stimulus package aimed at reducing the scope of the looming recession, some proposals have included longer-term thinking that accounts for a prolonged shutdown. The Treasury Department has floated sending Americans checks within two weeks to help stimulate the economy, with the potential for a second round of payments coming in May.
State governments are racing to provide their own funding, both to local businesses that are suffering and to agencies and first responders who are confronting the virus.
Newsom on Tuesday signed emergency legislation appropriating $1 billion for his state’s response. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed a suite of bills allocating another $400 million to various disaster-related accounts, on top of $100 million the legislature had already provided. Legislators in Georgia, Tennessee and Minnesota have all allocated more than $100 million for their own responses.
But the number of cases continue to rise, both as testing capacity builds and as the virus itself spreads.
“I have no real hope that we’re going to prevent cases. What we’re really trying to accomplish is that we don’t overwhelm the health system any more than it’s already going to be,” Osterholm said. “There are two kinds of people in the world right now: There are those that are in quarantine and those that are going to be.”
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