May 6, 2020

Should we save the economy or save lives? That choice is a lie


SALT LAKE CITY — I took a leap of faith Tuesday and got a haircut.

Friends may look at me and the hair desert on my dome and wonder why, but the little I have on the sides was becoming irritating as it bunched against my ears.

The suburban Salt Lake County barbershop I chose didn’t require masks. I’m not sure the barbers were operating 6 feet apart. But I did wait patiently as my barber meticulously sterilized his tools and wiped down the seat between clients.

Welcome to the brave new world, which looks almost like the one we left in March before we all were sent to our rooms.

I asked the barber how he had managed for the past two months, and he told me how he had just enough money in savings to get by. This was the shop’s first day back in business.

Let’s hope it doesn’t have to shut down again soon. Let’s hope the dreaded second wave doesn’t drown us.

In Worcester, Massachusetts, this week, the city ordered a Walmart to shut down temporarily after 81 out of 414 employees tested positive for COVID-19, most within the last week. Perhaps this will be the new normal going forward — look for pockets of rapid outbreaks and try to tamp them. Call it the whack-a-mole strategy.

The great lie being foisted on the American people in recent weeks, by everyone from protesters in the streets to some public officials, is that the world is engaged in a tug-of-war between saving the economy and saving lives.

That’s a false choice. The world is engaged in a struggle against a virus, about which not everything is known. It is contagious, and a percentage of those who get it will die.

No government told the NBA to suspend its lucrative season on March 11 after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive. League Commissioner Adam Silver acted quickly and decisively, no doubt relying on wisdom that says putting fans, and the players they watch, at risk is worse for business in the long run than trying to minimize short-term damage.

The NBA’s decision was followed swiftly by a lot of other private business decisions to send people home, and by churches and other organizations canceling large gatherings. Government came relatively late to that table, issuing varying orders from coast to coast about closures, mask wearing and staying at home.

On Tuesday, the personal finance website Wallethub.com released a study that showed Utah has the second fewest coronavirus restrictions in the country. The state was judged to have the most lenient rules on mask wearing, the fewest travel restrictions and the least restrictions on the reopening of nonessential businesses.

Only South Dakota was judged less restrictive.

But that’s only part of the story. The other part is that Utah has the third fewest deaths from COVID-19 per 1 million population. As of Tuesday, that figure was 18. As for the state’s neighbors, Idaho has 38, Arizona has 57, Nevada is at 92 and Colorado is at a whopping 154.

Why the difference? Who knows? Utah is a mostly unpopulated state with a lot of suburban, single-family homes, but that also could describe its neighboring states. Perhaps Utahns have been more diligent in voluntarily following rules than people in surrounding states, but that wouldn’t fully explain why Colorado is suffering so much more.

Rest assured, however, that if Utah experiences a spike, the economy will suffer. And for that to happen, governments won’t have to lift a finger. People will react on their own.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the nation may need to get used to a new normal during this phase of reopening.

“Mitigation hasn’t failed; social distancing and other measures have slowed the spread,” he wrote. “But the halt hasn’t brought the number of new cases and deaths down as much as expected or stopped the epidemic from expanding.”

He also said “if the virus continues to spread, the economy won’t snap back. Many Americans will be scared to go out, and with good reason.”

In other words, if that happens it will be because of the virus itself, not some imagined liberal-conservative battle between the economy and lives, and it won’t likely change until a vaccine is found.

In the meantime, we should cheer for people like my barber, whose livelihood stands in the balance, just as we should cheer on social distancing, masks and other voluntary safe practices and hope Utah keeps up its good record.



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