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The paradoxes and perils of reopening during the coronavirus pandemic

We need a few leaders to step forth and form a national consensus on America’s response to the greatest global health crisis we have faced in a century.

Beachgoers take advantage of the opening of South Beach, June 10, in Miami Beach.Cliff Hawkins/Photographer: Cliff Hawkins/Gett

The gym where I work out in Washington, D.C., is opening this week, but the synagogue where I pray is staying closed through at least September. I pay membership at both.

Like most people in America, I am left to figure out the paradoxes and perils of reopening the economy during the coronavirus pandemic and make sense of the new rules or lack thereof for myself.

We all accept the novelty of the new coronavirus and the absence of certainty. But layered onto the medical uncertainty is national uncertainty that has led to mixed messaging, conflicting advice, and a Wild West of individual decision-making with no rhyme or reason.


Take Oklahoma, where President Trump held his controversial rally on Saturday. Businesses were told to use their discretion in instituting social distancing measures, but such restrictions are not mandatory. So Trump was able to hold his rally with no obligation for audience members to wear masks or stay apart. An absence of rules means the freedom to clap, sing, shout, and spray droplets in any direction you choose.

In Louisiana, despite a law restricting parties to fewer than 20 people, at least 100 cases of COVID-19 were linked to employees and customers of bars in the Tigerland nightlife district near the Louisiana State University campus.

In South Carolina, where cases of COVID-19 are rising, the laws are unclear as to whether coroners must disclose who has died from the disease. The issue is moving through the courts. Without information being fed into the state database, the entire metrics system is faulty.

Even when the laws are clear, enforcement is not.

According to the New York University School of Law Policing Project, in response to COVID-19, almost every state has issued some form of stay-at-home or social distancing order. Governors and mayors are relying on police for enforcement of these orders. But guidance for police too often has been unclear. In some places — such as Florida, where, as of Monday, the number of confirmed coronavirus infections has surpassed 100,000 and confirmed deaths are nearing 3,200state and local rules conflict. In others, official messages vary: New York’s mayor instructed police “to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups” while the Brooklyn district attorney recommended that enforcement “consist of distributing masks, gloves, [and] sanitizers.” Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has done a masterful job of responding to the pandemic in his state, has called bars and threatened removal of liquor licenses to enforce the rules.


California has gone from masks being recommended to mandated, with gyms allowed to reopen if you wear your mask, which you can then remove while exercising (and breathing heavily).

And don’t look to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for clarity. What they offer are “recommendations” and “guidance” for things like masks, social distancing, and school openings but with so much wiggle room and watering down as to be nearly irrelevant. That has left colleges, for example, to announce everything from fully reopening to fully closing and holding classes online.

We need a few leaders to step forth and form a national consensus on America’s response to the greatest global health crisis we have faced in a century. A starting point would be something along the lines of the Kerner Commission, which President Johnson assembled to examine the causes of violence that occurred in America’s urban areas between 1965 and 1968. It concluded that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal” and called for “programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems” in response. Today we have a nation divided between wellness and sickness, intertwined with the same issues of racism that the Commission identified.


We are bound to have an America separated into clusters of infected and noninfected, dead and alive, homebound or out and about, with nobody in charge. We teach kids to listen to their parents and teachers and follow the rules and to be respectful of government officials. But with coronavirus cases surging across the United States and some models predicting 200,000 Americans will die of COVID-19 by October, those golden rules now seem hollow. The new rule is: Fend for yourself.

As to my own decision, I am going to worship via Zoom and work out in my kitchen.

Tara D. Sonenshine, a former US undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, is a fellow in public diplomacy at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.