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Northam: Virginia is faring better than some, but mask wearing must grow

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Counting up / May 27, 2020

At this writing more than 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, a loss that overwhelms our ability to appropriately mourn the dead. With no vaccine and no known treatment in sight, the plan moving forward seems to be to hope for the best, even if by now we should all know hope is not a plan.

If you look around, you’ll find some states and cities have responded reasonably well to the pandemic — thin reeds shooting up in a swamp of dithering action, inconsistent guidance, self-defeating orders and outright idiocy. And what of our own Commonwealth, and our governor? Ralph Northam hasn’t done the worst job in the world — that honor indisputably belongs to the President of the United States — but the Northam administration has hardly distinguished itself with its coronavirus game planning. Virginia’s volume of testing is abysmal, the state health department has refused to divulge key information on outbreak sites for various unsatisfying reasons, and most recently, Northam ignored the benchmarks that his own administration set for determining when it would be safe to reopen for business when he relaxed the state’s public health restrictions.

That’s all before Northam decided to take a stroll on the beach this weekend — a messaging fiasco that displayed the oafish side of our governor, who is an eminently decent human being with a penchant for giving people reason to believe otherwise. Northam’s visit to Virginia Beach — where he posed for selfies with the crowds, didn’t wear a mask, and violated rules for social distancing that his administration has strenuously preached — was one of those “do as I say, not as I do” moments that even a marginally savvy politician would have known to avoid.

Obviously, Ralph Northam hasn’t done anything so moronic as to suggest injecting the body with disinfectants and UV light to kill the coronavirus, but Saturday’s misadventures in Virginia Beach may be his worst political moment yet. (At least with the governor’s infamous blackface controversy, Northam could say he was a college student at the time.) It’s commendable Northam quickly admitted to setting a bad example. Meantime, however, all kinds of highly questionable behavior transpired across the country over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, and thoughtless conduct by elected leaders makes it pretty tough to convey, much less enforce, a public health standard for ordinary people to follow.

As a layperson with zero qualifications in public health or virology, I’ll simply add here that I’ve read any number of articles that cite actual experts who say brief encounters with others in an outdoors setting is unlikely to spread COVID-19. One piece I found particularly useful (because it seems very much like commonsense) suggested transmissibility is determined by two basic factors: volume of germs in a given space and length of exposure. Bringing people indoors in close quarters for an hour or two at a time — especially if the ventilation is poor — is a recipe for trouble. Crossing paths with someone in a park or on a jog is probably a low-risk proposition.

By these lights, Northam’s beach moment probably will have no real impact. But we don’t know yet if the same will be true of large outdoor gatherings where people mill about for hours at a time or come in close contact. Instead, it looks like people will be risking their health and safety as we find out the answer to these questions.

I’d give it until about the second week of June — that’s when we should know whether it’s safe to go back to the festivals or stadiums or what-have-you. Because by then, either the Memorial Day revelry around the U.S. will have caused a spike in COVID-19 cases, or it will not. Examples of devil-may-care behavior from the past weekend abound, but one occurred at a place I haven’t given much thought to until this week — Ace Speedway in Alamance County, N.C.. (We’ve covered late model racing action at the track in past years.) Ace Speedway went forward with its Memorial Day racing program this Saturday, an event that brought some 2,500 fans “shoulder by shoulder,” according to local media reports. Few people were wearing masks or maintaining physical distance. Alamance’s sheriff, Terry Johnson, ignored Gov. Roy Cooper’s order limiting groups to no more than 25 people and permitted the race to go forward. Asked about that, Johnson said he refused to “enforce an unconstitutional law” by the governor.

Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to infect others with a potentially deadly respiratory disease — what’s next for the pocket constitution crowd?

The rush to return to normal life is both completely understandable and utterly premature. In our heart of hearts, I think we all understand this. Problem is, a lack of coherent direction one way or another, coupled with reckless rhetoric about the pandemic from the usual suspects, defeats any effort to establish a better “new normal” to replace the miserable one we’ve now got.

It’s the worst of all worlds — an economy that remains paralyzed by people who are too afraid to go out in public and remain there for any amount of time, and a public health response that is destined to fail unless people cooperate on stuff like wearing masks and maintaining physical distance. The political battles are wearying, pointless, and frankly disgusting. The virus does not care about Donald Trump’s Twitter feed or Facebook spats or gun-toting “liberators” who think wearing a face mask turns them into girly men. The key thing before life returns to normal? People must have confidence that it’s safe to go about their daily business, and people must feel economically security to feel spend money. These two things can only develop with a vigorous federal response in place — a testing and contact tracing regime, support for the unemployed and businesses exposed to the pandemic’s downturn effects, and state and local governments that aren’t collapsing and aren’t laying off.

Maybe all this stuff happens. But if so, it’ll be despite the best efforts of this White House, not because of them. One of the arguments Trump supporters offer in praise of their man is to say he’s instilled confidence in the economy. While this was always an evidence-free assertion, there’s no question fear can bring commerce to a halt. (“We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” said a vastly better president in a similarly challenging time.) To dispel fear of COVID-19, massive effort will have to go into ramping up virus testing capabilities, isolating and treating those who are infected, and a million other challenges. What do we have to look forward to instead? A comically inept and unfit president who surrounds himself with bootlickers and boobs. Good luck with that, as the kids might say.

Me, I’m old enough to remember when the president said no one would get sick from the coronavirus and it would all magically go away, followed by the first 10,000 deaths, then 50,000, then 60,000, and now the number is up to 100,000 with no end in sight. I’m also old enough to remember when the Governor of Virginia romped by the surf, with nary a care in the world for social distancing, and issued the order a few days later requiring Virginians to wear masks in public spaces. Good times! What tomorrow will bring, only the shadow knows.


Just so we’re all clear on one point: Wearing a mask in indoor public buildings, as the governor has now ordered, is indisputably a good idea. Despite the caterwauling that has followed Northam’s Tuesday mandate, the public largely agrees on the wisdom of mask wearing: the Kaiser Family Foundation ran a poll earlier this month that showed 89 percent of Democrats, 72 percent of independents and 58 percent of Republicans reported wearing a mass every time or most of the time when they step away from home. Support generally runs around two-thirds to three-quarters of the population. Maybe we aren’t a doomed species of rake-steppers after all.

On a different note, let’s give a round of applause to the staff and administration of Halifax County High School for doing such a good job of turning lemons into lemonade with the “Comets In Cars” graduation event this Saturday. Yeah, it could have been bad, sad sendoff for the Class of 2020. Instead, people had lots of fun with a parade held in place of a formal procession where no one is supposed to clap or hoot. No wonder some folks want to make a drive-through parade the new commencement normal. And why not? Times of pain and sorrow can lay the groundwork for future happiness. Let’s not miss any chances to make ours.

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