Governors, please take a step back. It is time for mayors and city officials in your largest cities to assume full authority for managing the COVID-19 response in their communities. The very public battle between the governor of Georgia and the mayor of Atlanta exemplifies how the COVID-19 response has become more about political partisanship than public wellbeing.
Let’s face it, we are done with state-wide stay-at-home orders. Many governors did what was necessary in March when little was known about the novel coronavirus. A majority of them took quick and decisive action in light of such uncertainty. They deserve the highest commendation for their willingness to take an economic “poison pill” to protect their residents’ health. They knew that the road back to financial solvency would be long and painful, in spite of the rhetoric coming from the White House.
We have learned who is most vulnerable to poor outcomes with COVID-19 infections, how the virus spreads and what is most effective in reducing virus transmission. Our knowledge continues to grow as we move towards an effective treatment or vaccine. Decisions made using the best, albeit limited, available knowledge at the time did not always yield the desired results. This learning process provided valuable stepping-stones to better equip us with new information in managing this pandemic. The COVID-19 road to recovery is treacherous, filled with landmines and unexpected turns.
There is no how-to-guide for opening businesses, venues, churches and schools — mayors in large cities are writing it every day in real time, with few opportunities for revision or reflection. No one knows the optimal path to escape the COVID-19 quagmire. If every city, every community, every county, did exactly the same thing during their reopening, we would never learn what works and what does not. We would be placing all our eggs in one basket, especially one that is fraught with vulnerability and uncertainty. Allowing mayors to tailor their openings based on the needs of their community offers the best opportunity to find that optimal reopening formula — the needle in the haystack of economic and public health wellbeing.
The appropriate role for governors is to support local communities in their largest cities with testing capacity, managing and sharing data and securing personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. Undermining local efforts will guarantee failure and stir up divisiveness at a time when people need to come together for mutual support and wellbeing.
We have learned enough about COVID-19 to realize that a blunt instrument, such as stay-at-home orders applied to diverse states like California, Texas and Georgia, does little. There remain counties around the country, even in these states, that have zero COVID-19 cases, many with under 20 cases in total over the past four months. Why should such communities suffer the economic and social isolation inflicted by sweeping stay-at-home orders? Like a laser scalpel used to treat cancer, we need to apply treatments that are proportional to the circumstances in each community, focusing with precision on containing the virus.
How can this be achieved? Use the best available science to implement virus reducing protocols that correspond to the level of infections and virus spread risk in a community.
For communities with no infections, vigilance is critical since outsiders can bring the virus into their community. Testing and contact tracing will be necessary to contain any new introductions of the virus.
For communities with a small number of infections, physical distancing and face coverings, in addition to testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantines provide a means to reduce viral spread. The goal is zero new infections.
For communities with widespread transmission, mayors of large cities are the appropriate officials to manage the situation. They are responsible for their community’s well-being, with a vested interest in balancing the economic, public health and healthcare infrastructure risks to their constituents. In this case, they are best suited to oversee the known risks, like hospital bed and ICU capacity, but also the unknown risks that will surface during unpredictable spikes in new cases.
Community openings shift more of the responsibility for the health of a community to local residents. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, the health of a community will depend on voluntary adherence to guidelines that limit the spread of the virus.
Mayors, the ball is in your court. Close out this game. Governors, you may have started the process, but you are not the closer. Your job is to support your large city mayors as they take their communities to the finish line.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is the founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is an expert on data-driven risk-based decision-making. He is a former treasurer for INFORMS, the leading international association for operations research and analytics professionals, and currently chairs the INFORMS National Science Foundation (NSF) Liaison Committee.