Trump’s “Reopening” Is a Red Herring

We should not concede the language of “reopening” to right-wing liars who are sending poor people to their death.

Sarah Lazare May 14, 2020

A waitress wearing a mask and gloves disinfects a table in a Restaurant on May 5, 2020 in Stillwater, Oklahoma. (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

When Pres­i­dent Trump, Repub­li­can lead­ers, right-wing think tanks and bil­lion­aire CEOs aggres­sive­ly push to send peo­ple back to work before the coro­n­avirus is con­tained, this is not a reopen­ing.” It’s the oppo­site: an unrav­el­ing of the con­di­tions that we need to safe­ly and sus­tain­ably reopen our soci­ety. While the red her­ring of a reopen­ing” has dom­i­nat­ed news cycles and Trump admin­is­tra­tion press con­fer­ences, the Unit­ed States has moved ever fur­ther away from what we all des­per­ate­ly seek: a point at which this all ends, and it’s safe to go to the library, stroll mask­less through a park, eat din­ner with a loved one, and go to work with­out fear. The Right doesn’t own the reopen­ing” ter­rain — it has for­feit­ed it by bar­rel­ing down a road that leads to mass death, suf­fer­ing, and more and more clo­sures down the road.

As the Right marches us into dangerous thickets, we’re not taking the steps we need to find our way out of the woods.

Forty-two states have either start­ed reopen­ing” their economies or immi­nent­ly plan to do so, despite the fact that most of them have failed to meet even the non-bind­ing cri­te­ria put for­ward by the White House: that they have a 14-day down­ward tra­jec­to­ry” of known coro­n­avirus cas­es or rates of pos­i­tive tests (this stan­dard was crit­i­cized by pub­lic health experts for being ill-defined and insuf­fi­cient). Alarm­ing­ly, as of May 7, more than half of the states that had either reopened or planned to do so (30 at the time) have seen an increase in case counts or pos­i­tive tests over the past two weeks, accord­ing to a track­er from the New York Times. In Geor­gia, for exam­ple, test­ing lev­els are well below the min­i­mum rec­om­mend­ed by experts, and pos­i­tive test rates remain above a thresh­old of 10%. Yet Georgia’s gov­er­nor, Repub­li­can Bri­an Kemp, has instruct­ed nail salons and bowl­ing alleys to open. Kemp pre­sent­ed him­self as the cham­pi­on of work­ers he is send­ing into per­ilous con­di­tion, declar­ing April 17, I know peo­ple are chomp­ing [at the bit] to get back to work.” Trump has embraced the state-lev­el push to reopen, and even encour­aged protests against gov­er­nors who main­tain shel­ter-in-place instruc­tions, declar­ing in late April, LIB­ER­ATE MIN­NESO­TA!” and LIB­ER­ATE MICHIGAN!”

It is no mys­tery what is going to hap­pen as a result of this push. There is a con­sen­sus among experts that the Unit­ed States doesn’t have the mea­sures in place to reopen with­out caus­ing mass death. As the New York Times not­ed on May 11, Deaths are already far high­er than the 60,000 once pre­dict­ed by August. Even Pres­i­dent Trump has begun to talk of a toll that may reach 100,000, per­haps more.” An Asso­ci­at­ed Press analy­sis from May 12 found that even as Trump push­es the coun­try towards a swift reopen­ing, thou­sands of peo­ple are get­ting sick from COVID-19 on the job.” There are signs of new coro­n­avirus hot spots around the coun­try, includ­ing in states that are reopen­ing. For­mer Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion (CDC) direc­tor Tom Frieden has been vocal about the dire con­se­quences. We’re not reopen­ing based on sci­ence,” he told the Times. We’re reopen­ing based on pol­i­tics, ide­ol­o­gy and pub­lic pres­sure. And I think it’s going to end bad­ly.” We already know Black, Lati­no and poor peo­ple are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly dying from Covid-19 — this hor­rif­ic trend is almost cer­tain to con­tin­ue in sub­se­quent spikes.

We are way pre­ma­ture for open­ing when the cas­es nation­wide have not gone down but con­tin­ue to go up,” Deb­o­rah Burg­er, the co-pres­i­dent of Nation­al Nurs­es Unit­ed (NNU), told In These Times. We are still expe­ri­enc­ing a rationing of per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment, N95 masks, and oth­er pro­tec­tive gear. We just did a vig­il for over 100 nurs­es who have died.”

Dire warn­ings have even been issued by Trump’s own health offi­cials. On May 12, two of the top health offi­cials in the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment warned a Sen­ate com­mit­tee that the coro­n­avirus is not con­tained and that reopen­ing too swift­ly is pro­found­ly dan­ger­ous. Dr. Antho­ny S. Fau­ci, lead­ing U.S. infec­tious dis­ease expert, warned that there is a real risk that you will trig­ger an out­break that you may not be able to con­trol.” Dr. Robert R. Red­field, the cur­rent direc­tor of the CDC — who was hired by Trump and has a dis­turb­ing his­to­ry of han­dling the AIDS epi­dem­ic — plead­ed, We are not out of the woods yet.”

Yet, in pub­lic dis­course, the lan­guage of reopen­ing” is being large­ly con­ced­ed to the right. Art Laf­fer, the econ­o­mist behind Rea­gan-era tax cuts, has received con­sid­er­able media cov­er­age call­ing for wages to be slashed and work­ers to be sent back to their jobs at risk to their lives. So has the Koch-fund­ed Her­itage Foun­da­tion, which has pub­licly flaunt­ed its reopen­ing wish list” which excludes robust test­ing. We are not see­ing sim­i­lar air time giv­en to any vision of a safe, pub­lic-health-focused reopen­ing. Democ­rats have, by and large, failed to make this fram­ing cen­tral to their strat­e­gy, much less go on the offense against the cyn­i­cal and dead­ly GOP strategy.

As the Right march­es us into dan­ger­ous thick­ets, we’re not tak­ing the steps we need to find our way out of the woods. Social dis­tanc­ing is just one tool to slow the spread of the virus and pre­vent hos­pi­tals from becom­ing over­whelmed by the need for acute care. But until we have a vac­cine, addi­tion­al tools are vital to min­i­mize the spread of the virus: con­tact trac­ing and testing.

Con­tact trac­ing involves iden­ti­fy­ing and con­tact­ing those who have test­ed pos­i­tive for Covid-19, dis­cov­er­ing who they have been in con­tact with, and reach­ing out to those con­tacts to ensure that they quar­an­tine them­selves. Of course, any such effort must remain firm­ly under the purview of pub­lic health, sub­ject to the high­est pri­va­cy stan­dards like HIPAA pro­tec­tions, and nev­er be used for sur­veil­lance, polic­ing, or pri­vate data col­lec­tion (some states’ reliance on the Nation­al Guard and tech com­pa­nies for con­tact trac­ing rais­es pro­found con­cerns). While this approach may be dif­fi­cult to imag­ine in the Unit­ed States, whose default pos­ture is a law enforce­ment response to social prob­lems, it’s emi­nent­ly fea­si­ble — unlike a safe reopen­ing with­out con­tact trac­ing and before we have a vaccine.

A con­tact trac­ing pro­gram would require a min­i­mum of 100,000 new work­ers, and for­mer CDC direc­tor Tom Frieden sug­gests it could take up to 300,000. In their lat­est HEROES Act, which utter­ly fails to cre­ate a robust social safe­ty net, House Democ­rats pro­posed $75 bil­lion for test­ing, con­tact trac­ing, and oth­er activ­i­ties nec­es­sary to effec­tive­ly mon­i­tor and sup­press Covid-19.” But there is no polit­i­cal sign that a coor­di­nat­ed con­tact trac­ing effort will be adopt­ed on a nation­al lev­el any­time soon. Instead, we are see­ing a patch­work of state ini­tia­tives that leave large swaths of the coun­try with­out this key pub­lic health protection.

Wide­spread test­ing, car­ried out firm­ly in the pub­lic health domain, must go hand-in-hand with a con­tact trac­ing plan, accord­ing to experts. After all, it is test­ing that allows trac­ers to track peo­ple who are poten­tial­ly infect­ed. In a posi­tion state­ment on what a pub­lic reopen­ing should look like, NNU calls for wide­spread con­tact trac­ing and test­ing. Free, reli­able poly­merase chain reac­tion test­ing must be made wide­ly avail­able — includ­ing to low-income com­mu­ni­ties and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or — regard­less of known expo­sure or symp­tom sta­tus,” the union declares.

Natal­ie Dean, a bio­sta­tis­tics pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da, told Vox, The whole point of this social dis­tanc­ing is to buy us time to build up capac­i­ty to do the types of pub­lic health inter­ven­tions we know work. If we’re not using this time to scale up test­ing to the lev­el that we need it to be … we don’t have an exit strat­e­gy. And then when we lift things, we’re no bet­ter equipped than we were before.”

This is not a fringe posi­tion. World Health Orga­ni­za­tion spokesper­son Dr. Mar­garet Har­ris told CNN, You need to check that peo­ple who have symp­toms actu­al­ly have the virus, and then find peo­ple who they’ve been in con­tact with and iso­late them. If you can’t do that, then you go back to square one.”

It’s an under­state­ment to say Trump has squan­dered this oppor­tu­ni­ty. While experts have called for mass test­ing — from 500,000 to tens of mil­lions of tests per day, the Unit­ed States has aver­aged far less: about 260,000 dai­ly tests. As Vox not­ed on May 11, when con­trol­ling for pop­u­la­tion, Amer­i­ca is behind sev­er­al coun­tries in terms of Covid-19 test­ing,” name­ly Den­mark, New Zealand, Ger­many, Cana­da and Italy.

The con­trast between the Unit­ed States and South Korea is stark. By the end of Feb­ru­ary, South Korea had the sec­ond worst out­break of coro­n­avirus in the world, next to Chi­na. Yet, as Derek Thomp­son writes at The Atlantic, just as South Korea appeared to be descend­ing into cat­a­stro­phe, the coun­try stopped the virus in its tracks. It accom­plished this through a com­bi­na­tion of wide­spread con­tact trac­ing, test­ing, and fas­tid­i­ous iso­la­tion of those sick or at risk of infec­tion.” Busi­ness Insid­er not­ed in a May 9 arti­cle, South Kore­a’s test­ing total so far, when bro­ken down into num­ber of tests per­formed per mil­lion cit­i­zens, seems to be about 700 times” that of the Unit­ed States.

South Korea’s response was not with­out its prob­lems. Its use of sur­veil­lance in con­tract trac­ing opens the door to gov­ern­ment snoop­ing and pri­va­cy vio­la­tion beyond the pan­dem­ic. But these civ­il lib­er­ties con­cerns are not what’s stunt­ed the U.S. response. Rather, the cause lies in decades of delib­er­ate right-wing attacks on pub­lic goods and a patho­log­i­cal indif­fer­ence to Black and Brown lives from our rul­ing elite.

And even South Korea’s con­trolled open­ing was dan­ger­ous, lead­ing to a clus­ter of new cas­es in Seoul, prompt­ing that city’s may­or to indef­i­nite­ly close all bars and clubs. But even con­sid­er­ing this spike, South Korea’s out­break has been dra­mat­i­cal­ly less lethal than that in the Unit­ed States. Accord­ing to Vox, As of May 11, the coun­try of about 50 mil­lion peo­ple has had near­ly 11,000 con­firmed infec­tions and over 250 deaths, com­pared with rough­ly 1.3 mil­lion cas­es and more than 80,000 deaths in the US, which is home to 330 million.”

Cor­po­rate media is also uncrit­i­cal­ly repeat­ing the line that rad­i­cal anti-sci­ence Repub­li­can gov­er­nors are push­ing a reopen­ing” when they’re sim­ply delay­ing anoth­er inevitable shut­down. Geor­gia gov­er­nor to out­line steps to reopen state’s econ­o­my,” an Atlanta Jour­nal Con­sti­tu­tion head­line reads. “[Flori­da] Gov­er­nor announces reopen­ing plan for state” the Mia­mi Her­ald tells us. Reopen­ing” is pre­sent­ed as the objec­tive when every epi­demi­ol­o­gy mod­el tells us their efforts will have the oppo­site effect — the rush to reopen” with no test­ing or vac­cine will just expe­dite the spread of the dis­ease, cause more death, then lead to an un-reopen­ing. These aren’t efforts to reopen” — they are instead pub­lic rela­tions ges­tures to appease cor­po­rate inter­ests and bol­ster their own image of doing something.”

If Trump or any of these Repub­li­can gov­er­nors tout­ing their reopen­ing” showed up to a press con­fer­ence and announced they had cracked Cold fusion, or invent­ed a per­pet­u­al motion machine, these brazen­ly anti-sci­ence gim­micks would not be report­ed on with­out a heavy dose of skep­ti­cism. Why then are their equal­ly dubi­ous plans to reopen” the econ­o­my with zero buy-in from the sci­ence com­mu­ni­ty not treat­ed with equal con­tempt and incredulity?

Yet, Trump has repeat­ed­ly dis­missed calls for increased test­ing capac­i­ty, bizarrely using the Covid-19 infec­tion of Katie Miller, press sec­re­tary to Mike Pence and wife of Trump aide Stephen Miller, to make his point. This is why the whole con­cept of tests aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly great. The tests are per­fect but some­thing can hap­pen between the test where it’s good and then some­thing hap­pens and, all of a sud­den, she was test­ed very recent­ly and test­ed neg­a­tive. And then today, I guess, for some rea­son she test­ed pos­i­tive,” Trump said May 8. Respond­ing to these com­ments, Dean Bak­er, econ­o­mist and co-founder of the Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic and Pol­i­cy Research, told In These Times, I don’t think Trump lit­er­al­ly under­stands test­ing as an issue.”

While Trump refus­es to adopt these basic build­ing blocks of a pub­lic health response, far more is need­ed. It is impos­si­ble to divorce pub­lic health mea­sures to con­tain the virus from social pro­grams to ensure peo­ple are able sur­vive in the inter­im. Peo­ple must have hous­es in order to self-iso­late, and a guar­an­teed income in order to stay home. Pris­ons, jails and immi­grant deten­tion cen­ters, which have become petri dish­es for the virus, must be emp­tied — lest we sub­ject peo­ple to a pos­si­ble death sen­tence. Econ­o­mist Dean Bak­er under­scores that we need robust work­er pro­tec­tions and a revi­tal­iza­tion of the Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion (OSHA). OSHA has been gut­ted for decades and cut back its capac­i­ty enor­mous­ly,” he tells In These Times. OSHA should have been proac­tive — it should have been out in front.” In the world’s largest mil­i­tary empire, we also have a unique respon­si­bil­i­ty to stop the wars, bomb­ings, and sanc­tions that are mak­ing the world more vul­ner­a­ble to the coro­n­avirus, from Iran to Yemen.

That is to say, the Left has an oppor­tu­ni­ty to artic­u­late a vision for a safe, humane, and just reopen­ing — some­thing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­er­ship is fail­ing, or unwill­ing, to do. While the GOP opens the door to mass death, Democ­rats are fail­ing to fight for a robust safe­ty net that would allow peo­ple to shel­ter in place with­out fac­ing food inse­cu­ri­ty, mass suf­fer­ing and des­ti­tu­tion. Their pal­try, one-time checks and unem­ploy­ment insur­ance that excludes count­less mil­lions, includ­ing all undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple, has left count­less peo­ple free-falling with­out a net. A hasty reopen­ing is worse, but it is uncon­scionable that Democ­rats are not fight­ing for a mod­el of shel­ter­ing in place that is actu­al­ly viable for the vast major­i­ty of U.S. residents.

Even as ordi­nary peo­ple strug­gle, they still want soci­ety to adhere to pub­lic health stan­dards. Despite the out­sized media atten­tion giv­en to astro­turfed reopen” ral­lies, polling sug­gests that the rush to reopen goes against the will of a major­i­ty of peo­ple in the Unit­ed States. Accord­ing to a Yahoo News/​YouGov coro­n­avirus poll pub­lished May 8, 59% of peo­ple in the Unit­ed States think the reopen­ing of states like Geor­gia, Flori­da, Min­neso­ta and Texas is mov­ing too fast,” just 33% think it’s about right,” and 8% think it’s too slow.” Anoth­er Yahoo News/​YouGov poll, con­duct­ed April 17 to 19, finds 71% of peo­ple in the Unit­ed States are more wor­ried about reopen­ing too quick­ly than too slow­ly, only 29% are con­cerned about open­ing too slowly.

There is pub­lic will to do what’s need­ed to pre­vent peo­ple from being sac­ri­ficed, yet the Right is push­ing a fake reopen­ing that will only kill peo­ple and invite more shut­downs. As long as Democ­rats and the Left cede the ground of what reopen­ing” should look like, the mes­sag­ing war is being lost. Every­one urgent­ly wants to see a gen­uine reopen­ing. We must show that we have a real, work­able plan to do so — and that people’s present sac­ri­fices are towards this ulti­mate goal — not treat a rushed, far-right cam­paign as some­thing remote­ly resem­bling what a real reopen­ing” would look like. It’s not, and we need to make sure the pub­lic knows this.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

Limited Time: