America was not ready to reopen

Welcome to the great American comeback — of COVID-19

An open sign.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Coronavirus containment lockdowns have been in the process of being eased up across the country for weeks now. This caused a great deal of fretting at first, but for a while, it seemed as though things were going to proceed back to normal.

Now we can say with reasonable confidence that America was not actually ready to ease the lockdowns. Daily new infections are at their highest level ever in many places, including California, Florida, and Texas — the three most populous states in the country, where over a quarter of Americans live. Others are still trending downward, but insofar as people return to their pre-crisis behaviors, we can confidently predict the epidemic will continue to spread. It's bad.

Aside from the three big states, daily cases are also surging in North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, Arkansas, Puerto Rico, Oregon, and Alaska, and are up more modestly in other states. It's also not simply increased testing — in almost all of those states, the rate of tests coming back positive is increasing (or flat) along with confirmed cases. If more testing was producing an illusion of increased cases, we should see a declining positive test rate.

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It's important to realize also that there is a considerable time lag between infection and showing symptoms, typically between a few days and two weeks. That means these surges in infection are so far mostly due to things that happened before the recent explosion of protests against police brutality. There might be considerably sharper spikes over the next week or so.

Now, going out for a mass protest during a once-in-a-century pandemic is risky, and some of the protesters have not been careful about keeping their distance or wearing masks. That is irresponsible — people should be careful when they are outside in groups, no matter what the reason. On the other hand, it is a lot more justifiable to take to the streets to stop an ongoing plague of appalling police violence than it is to demand Pottery Barn be reopened.

But more importantly, the state response to the protests has showed the same negligence about containment that most parts of the American government have evinced for the last several months. From the very start of the pandemic the Trump administration has done almost nothing to actually contain its spread. We do not have a national test, trace, and isolate system, and we are not going to get one so long as Trump remains president. A few states have set up test-and-trace systems, but so far they are in their initial stages of deployment, and with the possible exception of Vermont, none so far has proved to be able to contain the virus for a prolonged period.

Trump won't even try to reinforce simple behavioral norms. German Chancellor Angela Merkel at least urged protesters in her country to wear masks and keep distant during protests, but Trump has never once mentioned such a thing. On the contrary, he and many of his senior staff refuse to model wearing masks in public at all, and he has repeatedly fueled a broader right-wing grievance complex attacking lockdowns as some kind of liberal conspiracy.

Urban police departments, meanwhile, have all but ignored containment. Instead they have violently herded protesters into groups, blasted them with chemical weapons that make people cough their lungs out, and stuffed them in jail without masks for hours or days — including in New York, where the gross incompetence of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio contributed to the worst outbreak in the country. In many cities, police are not even wearing masks themselves despite orders to do so. Containing the pandemic simply isn't something the American state is capable of doing, at any level.

This elementary failure of government means it is probably more important than ever for people to be careful about hygiene and social distancing right now. A recent study estimated that the coronavirus lockdowns prevented 60 million infections — and given an infection fatality rate of perhaps 0.4 percent, about 240,000 deaths. Now that businesses are starting to reopen, it is vitally important for people to be careful in the most risky places: confined indoor spaces where lots of people talk and congregate for an extended period.

That just might head off future New York-style galloping outbreaks. But we shouldn't lose sight of what it means that personal behavior is now the last line of defense against the coronavirus. The fact is that the American state is rotten to the bone at almost every level, and incapable of performing the most elementary functions. If and when this crisis passes, this country needs some serious work.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.