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It’s Time to Shut the Country Down — and Pay People to Stay Home

It will be hard, but the far side of inaction at this juncture is very nearly unthinkable.

A health care worker gives another a shoulder rub before they go back into the the COVID-19 Unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas, July 2, 2020.

The school districts for the cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, San Francisco and Atlanta have announced that all fall classes will be held online because of the current eruption of new COVID-19 cases across the South and West. Last night, however, Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp issued an order nullifying all locally declared mask mandates in the state, including in Atlanta.

A Utah County Commission meeting was held Wednesday night to discuss the use of masks in schools, if and when the schools should open. The conversation never got started, because the room was flooded with maskless, MAGA-hatted “anti-mask protesters” whose defiance of public health guidelines brought the meeting to an abrupt halt. “This mandate for the children to wear masks is baloney,” one protester told the Salt Lake Tribune.

Also on Wednesday, Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt announced he has been infected with COVID and is quarantining. Stitt embraced Donald Trump’s debacle of a Tulsa rally last month, which local health experts believe led to a spike in COVID cases in that city, and may have even been responsible for Stitt’s own infection.

Governor Stitt was quick to state that, despite his own present experience with COVID, he will not even consider a mask mandate to protect public health. “We’re not going to mandate [masks] in the state of Oklahoma,” he told the Tulsa World, “and we’re not going to be mask-shamers either.”

Back in Washington, D.C., reality remains on an eerily similar hiatus at the White House.

“As Trump’s re-election campaign has struggled to tear down former Vice President Joe Biden with less than four months until Election Day, the president’s staff have devoted considerable resources to finding novel ways to make him feel better about the crumbling world around him,” reports The Daily Beast. “They tell him tales of his sagging poll numbers being fake. They’ve concocted ways of convincing him that the adoring crowds he loves on the campaign trail are still there and ready. They’ve pledged that the social, racial, and economic crises ravaging the nation are ephemeral. And they’ve carried his water as he seeks to reassert his authority over situations falling beyond his control.”

That water-carrying apparently led Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro to pen an astonishingly vicious and ill-timed editorial broadside against Anthony Fauci, the government’s top COVID expert and the deeply popular face of the fight against the pandemic in the United States. Trump and the White House distanced themselves from Navarro’s attack, but at least one White House source claims Navarro had Trump’s express permission to lob the brick. “Not only was he authorized by Trump, he was encouraged,” the unnamed official said.

A day in the life of Pandemic America, one which saw more than 66,000 new COVID infections nationally, and which was the 37th consecutive day those numbers have risen. The death toll, also rising again, stands at more than 137,000 souls.

The cognitive dissonance on display across the country, and especially in regions currently being harshly affected by COVID, is as remarkable a phenomenon as this nation has ever seen. This self-destructive Trump-inspired defiance of basic safety measures, from leaders as well as voters, has few peers in the annals of our history. There were anti-mask protesters during the 1918 influenza pandemic, too. That calamity lasted years and killed half a million people.

We are on our way to a similar fate if matters continue as they are. There is but one solution. It is the hard and wildly unpopular option, but it is also the only option to take if we wish to avoid what is shaping up to be the bleakest winter in living memory.

Shut it down.

The nation, and specifically the regions currently most affected, must shutter stores, businesses and gatherings of more than a few people. No churches, no schools, no sports, with mandated masks and stay-at-home orders back in place. These were the actions that beat back COVID in the nightmare that was March and April, and did so with such success, in fact, that the country barnstormed into the current crisis because it reopened too soon.

We must recognize that staggering error in judgment and accept the consequences. It is as bad now as it was back at the beginning, and is growing worse by the day. We are out of choices, and running short on time.

Congress, and specifically Mitch McConnell’s Republican majority in the Senate, must walk or be shoved away from what appears to be their current strategy: Offer no new aid to the people to saddle an increasingly likely President Biden with a ruined economy. If you think Mitch isn’t capable of that kind of lethal political calculus, I have an instant COVID cure to sell you. McConnell must be made to move.

Workers and businesses must be provided with enough federal aid to remain home and closed, while surviving and sustaining. This time, it must mean everyone, especially lower-wage workers, and not just Trump’s wealthy pals. As more school districts close and millions of children prepare for schooling at home, those parents must receive all the aid they need to keep their heads above water until the storm passes.

This will require multiple acts of specifically targeted legislation, and oversight must be severe to thwart the same brigands who plundered the CARES Act, the one and only significant aid package Congress has managed to pass.

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School argues that the most effective way to mitigate the economic damage from the pandemic is to save as many lives as possible, which means shut it down and keep ‘em safe. “A pandemic is so destructive,” says MIT economist Emil Verner, author of the study. “Ultimately any policy to mitigate it is going to be good for the economy.”

Common sense and science can also dictate how and where this happens. Regions where the outbreak is exploding will have to close virtually everything down that is not deemed essential. Towns like Allagash, Maine (pop. 239), however, should have the latitude to lean a bit more toward normal if the infection rate in such places remains under control. This is a vast and complicated nation; the need to shut down can and must be weighed against the potential risks. If those risks are low in places, the sterner shutdown protocols can be partially avoided.

The math is there, and solid. If the United States government can cough up $1.5 trillion for the ridiculous F-35 Joint Strike fighter — one of thousands of hyper-costly Pentagon boondoggle programs — it can pay to keep people from choking to death alone in overcrowded hospitals. It can pay waiters to wait at home for the storm to pass. It can pay parents to teach their children on the couch, and it can pay teachers to stay away from the potential virus bomb of classrooms.

It is high summer today, but as Eddard Stark always correctly warned, winter is coming. This winter — with a national election, an ongoing pandemic, the seasonal flu, and cold dry air beloved by many viruses — holds the high potential for shutting the country down massively, violently and entirely against our will.

The time to act is now, right now. It will be hard, but the price of inaction at this juncture is very nearly unthinkable, and coming all too soon.

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