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OPINION

The looming battle between science and stupidity

Governors rush in where the coronavirus pandemic experts fear to tread.

Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia has made stupidity his guide.
Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia has made stupidity his guide.Ron Harris/Associated Press

This country, sadly, is about to embark on several demonstration projects in idiocy, with certain states determined to reopen before public health experts say it’s wise.

That’s like leaning into an epidemiological uppercut; for if an evil genius could design a pathogen that exploited stupidity but could be contained by smart practices and common sense, it would be COVID-19.

As we’re seeing, it can be contained by basic, though in some cases hard-to-endure, steps: shutting down nonessential businesses and working from home whenever possible, practicing social distancing, handwashing, disinfecting, and so forth.

But as we’ve also seen, it can sweep through populations that aren’t willing to abide by those measures. Witness Italy.

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In urging citizens to stay the course, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York summed things up aptly on Wednesday: “This is no time to act stupidly.”

Sadly, for some of his Republican counterparts, when it comes to activating stupidity, there is no time like the present. Consider: The oft-cited model by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington says no state will be ready to open until at least May 4, and most won’t reach that point for some weeks thereafter.

No matter. Certain governors are rushing in where scientists fear to tread.

Topping that list is Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia, who has issued orders by which Georgia will commence reopening on Friday. (The IHME model says it should wait at least until June 8). Governor Henry McMaster of South Carolina has already granted permission for many nonessential retail businesses in his state (IHME: June 8) to reopen, and Tennessee (IHME: May 18) will follow suit next week.

Although none of those states meet President Trump’s reopening guidelines, Kemp’s decision stands out as especially foolish, for this reason: He’s allowing restaurants, movie theaters, hair salons, tattoo and massage parlors, gyms, and the like to reopen.

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In doing so, he’s stacking irresponsibility atop ineptitude. He was very late to close Georgia — and when he finally did so, his reasoning was revelatory: He had just learned that COVID-19 could be spread by asymptomatic carriers. By that point, the likelihood of asymptomatic transmission had been discussed for about two months. It’s hard to imagine the mindset of an elected official who, having professedly been ignorant of that aspect of this contagion, now ignores the best expert advice in his hurry to reopen.

That said, we got an instructive window into open-immediately imbecility Wednesday when Anderson Cooper interviewed Mayor Carolyn Goodman of Las Vegas, who wants people at the casinos, in the restaurants, and at sporting events — sporting events? — in her city now.

But what about the highly contagious coronavirus and the need for social distancing, Cooper inquired? Casinos and other hospitality establishments would figure all that out, Goodman replied. And if they didn’t? Well, then, as she, um, explained in another interview, customers would get sick, whereupon “competition will destroy that business,” and it would be closed down. Thus illness will come to protect us all.

Goodman was every bit as dismissive when Cooper asked if she worried that people would visit Las Vegas, catch COVID-19, and then return home and spread it.

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“It’s the responsibility of each one of us as a human being and part of the civilized world to know when we’re sick,” she replied. Um, Madam Mayor, let me mention two words even Governor Kemp is now familiar with: asymptomatic transmission.

Thankfully, Goodman isn’t in a position to have her way.

But Kemp and his fellow early-opening governors are.

How bad is the Georgia governor’s decision? On Wednesday, even President Trump, who has been agitating — and trolling — for early reopenings, felt compelled to reverse himself and say he “strongly” disagreed with Kemp’s plan. That reversal reportedly came after members of the White House coronavirus task force conveyed to Trump that if asked about Kemp’s action, they couldn’t defend it.

Kemp, however, says he won’t reverse course. After all, as German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller observed: Against stupidity, the gods themselves struggle in vain.

That’s tragic. People will suffer, and some will likely die, as a result.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.