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Room with a view: Thoughts on unlocking the lockdown

Lots of folks have opinions about whether we’ve “turned the corner” on controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, at least in California if not nationally or internationally. The number of new cases reported is slowing (good) but testing and contact tracking are not yet widespread enough (bad) and there are rumblings that at least some people have suffered a relapse (or a recurrence or a re-activation) after having been pronounced cured.

But enough headway has been made, with new findings on the virus itself and possible treatments and lower utilization of limited health and wellness resources, that people are beginning to look toward lifting the stay-at-home orders.

We now have “unlocking” or “re-opening” plans (or schemes or frameworks or pathways) from California Governor Newsom (in conjunction with Oregon and Washington State), and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (and a bloc of Northeastern States), and the American Enterprise Institute, and the United States Chamber of Commerce.

President Trump has yet again stated/tweeted that he wants to re-open the nation for business. He has released his own plan, called “Opening Up America Again” although it’s not his call. He can shoot off a flare (or his mouth) but under our system of federalism the individual State governors have more say. His proposal even recognizes obliquely that he can be more a persuader than a dictator. His so-called gateway criteria to meet prior to beginning a phased easing of stay-at-home orders has a serious omission: contact tracking. Overall, it resembles the other plans put forward so far.

And, actually, politicians have more say about shutting down the economy than about opening up the economy. They can open the door but they cannot force businesses to actually conduct business, nor force consumers to spend money — if they have the money to spend. (Note that additional federal funds to help small businesses bridge the revenue gap have been blocked by Democrats in the House of Representatives. Email your Congressional representative.)

It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing — but a whole lot more complicated. Protect those hens by keeping them cooped up without roosters, and they’ll produce fewer less nutritious unfertilized eggs until they stop producing entirely and eventually die. Let roosters in, and you could get more chicks and eggs but also abused hens who won’t lay at all — plus fights among the roosters. Let the hens free-range to improve their health, and foxes could get fat rather than hens laying more nutritious eggs.

Now imagine that instead of one hen house, you are trying to manage millions of hen houses.

The problem is so complicated that carefully orchestrating re-opening the economy using centralized command-and-control is impossible.

The government should provide a more-or-less safe space for business to be conducted and get out of the way. Let those chickens do their thing without a lot of interference, from either foxes or government. Make it easy for people to work, for business to be transacted, for hare-brained schemes to be tried. Some will fail, but some will succeed.

That’s capitalism. That’s the free market.

Lower the burden of regulation. Quit telling everybody how to conduct business. Stop squelching economic activity.

Do not let impossible ideals block non-government entities (businesses, people, non-profits) from picking themselves up, dusting themselves off, and getting back in the fight.

For instance, among Governor Newsom’s “six indicators for modifying the stay-at-home order” is “the ability to prevent infection in people who are at risk for more severe COVID-19.” Taken at face-value, that means cutting off all physical contact until a foolproof COVID-19 vaccine is available, with a developmental timeline of a year to a year-and-a-half. That’s likely unworkable.

The analysis by Scott Gottlieb at the American Enterprise Institute describes four phases not all that different from Governor Newsom’s six indicators, just cast in a different form.

The “Path Forward” suggested by the United States Chamber of Commerce is, unsurprisingly, more focused on business. The Chamber brings up regulatory and liability issues that need to be worked through, issues sidestepped by President Trump and Governor Newsom.

I have personal preferences — for instance, I think that AB 5 should be totally trashed in order to unshackle independent contractors. AB 5 was nuts before COVID-19 and it’s nuts to the nth degree now. Another personal preference? I’d like the State of California to give back at least some of the revenue it swiped from cities during the last fiscal crisis. Instead, the State Legislature and Governor conspired to lard the budget. The COVID-19 crisis offers a golden opportunity for the State Legislature and the Governor to claim hardship, making a give-back highly unlikely even though cities are also facing a tougher economic climate.

The twinkle-toes already shown by local restaurants in pirouetting to take-out, delivery, and curbside pick-up cheers me greatly — we’ve made a point of “eating out” weekly since Governor Newsom issued the stay-at-home order. Want ideas for restaurants to patronize? Check out this list of restaurants posted at the official website for the City of Cypress.

Unleash this power across the entire state and nation and watch miracles become mundane.