How Do We (Safely) Go Back to Normal?

Lauren Goode: That’s amazing!

MC: Oh, yeah. It’s important. It’s like being in the real world.

[Intro theme music]

MC: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I am Michael Calore, a senior editor at WIRED. I am joined remotely again by my cohost, WIRED senior writer Lauren Goode.

LG: Hello from home.

MC: We are also joined this week by WIRED senior correspondent, Adam Rogers. Hi, Adam.

Adam Rogers: Hello, also from home.

MC: Welcome back to the show. Today we’re going to be talking about the ways we as a nation are responding to the coronavirus. Later in the show, we will offer up some tips about how to cope emotionally at a time like this and yes, we will probably be offering some advice that doesn’t involve booze, but only some. First, however, we’re going to talk about nothing less than the state of the union. As shelter in place orders keep getting extended, the responses from state governments have varied widely. Some states have formed alliances so they can pool resources and fight the virus more effectively, while others have announced plans to reopen businesses and return to, quote unquote, “normal”, which of course goes against the advice of public health experts.

On top of that, the federal government is eager to lift social distancing requirements without providing any guidelines on how exactly that would work. Now, Adam, about a week ago you wrote a piece for, in which you called the White House’s plans for ending coronavirus restrictions “magical thinking.” Seeing how a week feels like a month these days, how have things progressed since then?

AR: Isn’t that time dilation effect strange? When you’re not bounded by your commute to the office or whatever it is that you mark time with every time? Time gets funny. Things have progressed poorly, I would say. There’s been this real weird schism between … among, I guess, states which are the primary entities that regulate public health. Public health responsibilities fall on states and localities in the United States and the only levers that the federal government has really with public health or money, how much money to give, how much money you can grant to a state. So what’s happening now is that the different states instituted their stay at home social distancing, non-pharmaceutical intervention orders at different times and now different states are feeling some pressure to lift them. That tracks roughly with which states are most dependent on sales tax as opposed to corporate taxes or property taxes.

I just saw some numbers on this. If you’re really dependent on sales tax like Florida and Texas are, for example, then you really need businesses to reopen because you need that money coming back into your coffers. What you hope for is that the federal government might provide some kind of centralizing for all of this, and they haven’t. At various times the president has either said, “This is entirely up to the states. I’m not going to help with ventilators and PPEs and you’re all on your own,” or, “Everybody should go back to work.” In fact, the president tweeted some things about liberating different states and demanding that states lift whatever restrictions they had chosen.

The White House, the federal government, put out this sort of a guideline for when states could lift their restrictions, and this is the thing that I wrote about, but it said things like, “Okay, there’s some gating factors and then there are these different phases you can do, but as soon as everybody has a lot of testing in place and as soon as you have contact tracing and sentinel surveillance, which is looking for a disease popping up, actively looking for it in different groups, then you can start to reopen.” Everybody was like, “Okay, great, but we don’t have that and the states have no way of having that.” States say, “You just told us we had to go by our own tests, and then you got in our faces when we went and bought our own tests, and you’re saying we have to have our own tests.”

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