For a moment, I forgot. Karla and I were at an outdoor restaurant on a summer evening, surrounded by tables of chattering families and relaxed couples. In the waning yellow sunlight, we sipped wine, enjoyed our halibut, and soaked up the life around us. Giddy liberation was in the air. The entire main street of this small suburban town north of New York City had been closed to cars, so that restaurants, a pizza place, and an ice cream joint could set up distanced tables outside. People wore masks on sidewalks and while making their way to their tables, taking them off when they were seated. Similar successful adaptations to the pandemic can be found throughout the Northeast, where the test-positivity rate has fallen to about 1 percent and deaths and hospitalizations have plunged. The coronavirus is a formidable foe, but we now know how to minimize its person-to-person spread. How many people get sick and die between now and a vaccine is largely under our control.
"We can virtually eliminate the virus any time we decide to," says Andy Slavitt, a former head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Several other countries in Asia and Europe have largely done so. To undo the damage of premature re-openings in the South and West, Slavitt says, these states would need a second lockdown, closing all bars, indoor restaurants, churches, and public transit for about 50 days. Masks should be mandated, and interstate travel shut down. These policies, Slavitt calculates, would drive the reproduction rate of COVID-19 down to 0.5. Then exponential pandemic math would take over, and a community with 60,000 active cases would, 50 days later, have just 58 cases. At that point, testing and contact tracing become fast and effective. Life could safely resume, with some prudent restrictions. The alternative is now on display in ICUs in Florida, Arizona, and Texas. Will successive surges define our lives into 2021? Our choice.