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A Turn for the Worse

July 9, 2020 (1,984 words)

Oh, my. State populations that thought themselves immune to the COVID-19 outbreak in March are now experiencing a surge of infections. While other states, on strict lockdown for months, are registering an uptick in reported cases as they try to re-open.

Looks like the health professionals were correct when they counseled us in the beginning this was going to be a long, drawn-out ordeal.

The eight-week length of the federal subsidy known as the Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) may have given us false hope things would be back to normal by now. Other factors contributing to the misconception would include the over-optimistic pronouncements regularly issued by our Commander-in-Chief.

That, and the fact we all instinctively chaff at being told what to do – or in this case, what not to do. Eight weeks cooped up inside, cooling our jets and left to our own devices was probably the most any of us could imagine at the time.

The media really has no choice but to report these new developments in the dire, grim reaper tone that is their stock-in-trade. But now one can also detect a hint of self-satisfied “I told you so” attached to the dispatches.

This may be partly our own fault. The “sky is falling” reportage may be a subliminal response to how reluctant we are to follow the simplest guidelines for re-engagement while operating under this cloud: Wearing a facemask, washing one’s hands throughout the day, and practicing social distancing. A segment of the media is over-compensating with an extra dose of doom and gloom.

And so we choose up sides once again. This time it’s between shutting everything back down to protect people’s health, or forging ahead with openings to help get the economy moving again. The advocates for shutdown seem best equipped to survive with the least disruption to their incomes or daily routines. Not everyone is so lucky. While those pushing the hardest for openings behave as though any concern over risk to public health and safety is a figment of the liberal imagination.

pandemic politics…

Tempting as it may be to search for scapegoats this health crisis is no one’s fault, and the resulting economic upheaval should not be laid at the feet of milquetoast Governors who decided to shut down their state. Nor can all our problems be solved by now giving the “all clear” so people can gather and mingle again in their favorite haunts.

Why accuse certain Governors of running scared, when all they are doing is reacting to the data? It’s we the people who are the wild card. Our resistance to implementing basic precautions is what’s driving the numbers. The ongoing display of rugged individualism by average citizens will force many states to toggle back and forth between opening public venues, and then re-applying restrictions on those same venues.

The way crowds have defiantly gathered in recent weeks, without face masks or any semblance of social distancing, is an example of what the Governor of New Jersey describes as knuckle-head behavior.

On the other hand these lovable, misguided knuckle-heads are helping to revive a segment of the economy – restaurants and the hospitality industry – that has been devastated by the pandemic-induced shutdown. Many such establishments have already been forced to close for good. Now it’s starting to feel like many more will inevitably follow suit.

It’s a complicated story with multiple strands to the narrative, and it’s hard to get a complete picture from any one news source. Maybe that’s our own fault, too. We are an impatient and not particularly discerning audience, so our opinions makers have learned to pare down the information they provide and serve it up in easily digestible sounds bites.

The fact is some states are experiencing dramatic upticks in reported cases, while others are not. If you happen to live in a spot where the population is self-contained and does not travel about, you may not have experienced any infections, and may not be prone to many new ones moving forward. This describes a rural section of central Pennsylvania where one of my co-workers has family. Nobody is wearing a face mask where he comes from, and infections are all but non-existent.

Then again such isolated areas are becoming few and far between, because not many populations can be reliably described as self-contained these days. When the Governor of South Dakota issues a formal statement that they will not mandate face masks or social distancing at the Mount Rushmore Fourth of July celebration attended by President Trump, it may accurately reflect the current lack of infections in this remote, sparsely populated state. But this official position does not account for all the dignitaries and related staff and press corps who traveled in from the East Coast to attend the event.

the need for personal responsibility and individual compliance….

So this one Fourth of July message was incomplete. The same can be said of new White House complaints that the latest Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for opening schools in the fall are “too strict.” It would be less combative and more constructive for the White House to initiate a wide dissemination of just what is contained in those recommendations, and offer practical suggestions on how the general public can find a way to implement them. The most unreasonable ones can then be teased out in the process.

Students are said to want a return to the classroom so as to resume a complete, on-campus experience. And educators all say they are interested in the same thing – with one catch. Teachers are concerned about exposing themselves to a serious health risk, because they don’t have faith in their young charges to adopt the necessary safeguards. Seems the in-bred inclination toward rugged individualism expresses itself at an early age.

But it’s not just students or beach-goers or Black Lives Matter protestors who take a dim view of the importance of face masks. Some construction workers who have been allowed back to work are also displaying a cavalier attitude when it comes to following the elaborate safety protocols and COVID-19 guidelines issued by the local Department of Buildings (DOB).

As you may have heard, construction was re-classified as an “essential business” in both Manhattan and Philadelphia, the two cities where my small company does work in large office towers. The new tenant “build outs” that were halted in mid-March have all started back up. In Manhattan, where I schedule our manpower and arrange for our material and equipment to get moved around the city as needed, there is always the outlier or two walking around a job site without a mask.

The construction management firms who oversee these projects, and who we are technically working for, are knocking themselves out to comply with the NYC DOB protocols, and to encourage the compliance of every single worker. They take everyone’s temperature at the loading dock as we enter the building, and post signage everywhere that emphasizes the importance of face masks and social distancing. They have set up hand sanitizer stations at various locations around the site. There is elaborate paperwork, such as a “Pre-Task Plan,” that every trade must complete and hand-in to the Construction Management firm on a daily basis, as part of the NYC DOB protocols. But it’s hard to babysit dozens of individual construction workers on a typical office build-out, all day long.

bracing for the long haul…

While we can anticipate a vaccine being introduced at some point, it’s hard to see an easy fix for the broken economy. Some of the nation’s largest industries are experiencing catastrophic losses. The arts have cratered. Certain retail outlets are barely squeaking by with on-lines sales. (But Amazon Prime is cleaning up, isn’t it?) A slew of small businesses have already permanently packed it in.

Being able to work from home has allowed some people to carry on almost as if nothing has happened. They have come to rely on things like Zoom to interact with colleagues and clients, since nobody is reporting to the mother ship, or traveling to satellite locations.

New office build-out projects in Manhattan and Philadelphia that feature my company’s acoustical specialty products continue to get bid on and awarded. In the short terms things appear to have returned to a reasonable facsimile of normal for my small operation, even if both cities remain relatively quiet and empty. The major corporations who lease this prime real estate have not decided to bring their staffs back into these buildings just yet.

And it remains to be seen if a critical mass of these employees will eventually return to fill all the gleaming offices we are helping to finish, once a vaccine is discovered and life as we used to know it resumes. There may be some major paradigm shifts across our entire economy once this pandemic passes through. The pent-up demand for high-rise office space may prove to be one of the casualties.

Since the economic effects of this pandemic are going to be with us for a while, the federal government will likely have to continue providing stimulus to a variety of sectors to stave off a total collapse. When they revisit the mundane subject of unemployment compensation, let’s hope they don’t get as carried away as they did the first time.

It’s easy to criticize aspects of the government’s response and the media’s reporting in the face of this pandemic, since everybody has been trying to figure things out on the fly. But there have been some real head-scratchers mixed in along the way. Take the federal government’s decision to provide an additional $600.00 of unemployment compensation per week. This provision expires on July 31, and an extension is under discussion.

What on Earth were our legislators thinking? Their plan doesn’t just make people whole, it leaves them rolling in dough. According to the Congressional Budget Office, this largesse pays 5 out of 6 workers more to stay home than return to their previous jobs. Is it any wonder some companies are having trouble luring their furloughed employees back to work?

The media can be faulted for not trying harder to provide a broader context that would help us evaluate the level of risk we face. It’s one thing to dutifully report the number of new infections and the total deaths experienced to date, but how does the COVID-19 death toll compare to a normal year? Weren’t we contracting and dying of other diseases before the coronavirus came along?

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that nobody seems to be dying of anything but COVID-19 these days. And the fact that a high percentage of COVID deaths are occurring in our nursing homes, among our oldest population, also seems to get only sporadic coverage.

This is not to suggest we don’t have a health crisis on our hands. Only that maybe the media would be more responsible if it tried to put things in perspective, instead of firing up its default reprimand of our unwillingness to go into total isolation. Not to mention the cheeky way it accuses the current administration of violating the public trust by its suggesting we find a way to carry on, while taking common sense precautions.

As to this overarching question of opening up versus shutting back down, by all means you can continue to indulge your favorite pastime: Grousing about government and the news media. But if each of us exhibits a modicum of personal responsibility when we leave the house, we may find there is far less to complain about.

So that’s it, I’ve said my piece. Face masks and social distancing, people. Sunlight may be the best disinfectant, but it won’t bring the transmission of a deadly virus to a complete halt. There is no way to prevent airborne contagions from jumping from one person to the next, especially in an enclosed space.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
July 9, 2020

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