Dancing With the Devil (Updated)

This Just In: Phil Scott is playing a dangerous game.

The governor has been consistent in believing that, with proper encouragement and modeling, Vermonters will wear masks of their own accord. And he’s kinda-sorta been right, at least in terms of “no big outbreaks so far.”

But if he’s waiting for “lots more cases” before considering a mask mandate, then he will have waited too long. As the examples of Florida, Texas, Arizona, Arkansas, South Carolina and other states show, and as the science about coronavirus shows, “lots more cases” is the inevitable precursor of an out-of-control pandemic.

And by Vermont standards, the past month hasn’t been the best. According to the Health Department’s data, the month of May brought exactly 100 new cases, increasing our total from 885 to 985. Since June 1, we’ve added another 223.

Last week, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine claimed that Vermont was flattening the curve. That was arguably true a month ago, but not now. And every time Scott gives the ol’ spicket another quarter-turn, we hope it’s not coronavirus that comes out.

In truth, he doesn’t have any good options. The initial shutdown was supposed to give America time to get its shit together on testing and contact tracing. Then, when we reopened the economy, we’d be able to keep a lid on the virus — just as most of Europe has done. But here, the Trump administration completely bungled things. As a result, the shutdown accomplished nothing except to cause tremendous disruption and untold financial pain.

At last Wednesday’s press briefing, Scott was asked if he expected Congress to extend the temporary $600 bump in unemployment benefits. He said he didn’t, and that was why he continued to gradually reopen the economy. If he can’t do that, then the pain will spread and intensify.

But every gradual bit of reopening heightens the risks.

Take the administration’s ridiculous travel map. Please, take it.

I’m sorry, but they can NOT be serious about this.

They are trying their damndest to restore at least a sliver of Vermont’s tourism industry. But c’mon, now. Do you really expect out-of-staters to look up and obey this map? Which, by the way, changes weekly — so don’t pre-plan a visit for two or three weeks from now, because your county might turn yellow or red.

Also, the state prefers that people drive here rather than fly. So, if you live on the northeastern corner of Maryland, you’d have to travel through yellow and red counties to visit Vermont. Do you have to promise not to stop in any danger zones?

And besides, many people carry the virus unknowingly. It can take a couple weeks between infection and illness — or you might never show any symptoms. Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control, says we’ve probably detected only one-tenth of America’s real case load. If you count on current numbers to indicate which counties are “safe,” you’re making a very dangerous assumption.

Same with the governor’s stubborn refusal to mandate mask-wearing. We think Vermont is doing well, but we don’t know for sure. And we won’t know what’s really going on right now until two or three weeks from now, because of the lag between infection and symptoms.

About three weeks ago, Scott allowed indoor seating, up to 25% of total capacity, at Vermont’s bars and restaurants. That 25% was designed to provide a margin of safety. Two weeks later, the limit was increased to 50%. Funny thing; when the limit was doubled, we still didn’t know if the original 25% had created any increase in cases. JP Morgan Chase, which issues a vast quantity of credit cards, recently did a data crunch and came to this conclusion:

…the level of in-person spending in restaurants three weeks ago was the strongest predictor of where new cases would emerge. Similarly, higher spending in supermarkets indicated a slower spread, suggesting shoppers in those regions may be living more cautiously.

Three weeks. That’s the lag time between restaurant traffic and Covid impact.

Vermont’s restaurant industry is in desperate need of business. Twenty-five or 50 percent capacity may not be enough to float their boats. I’m sure the pressure is on to further relax the standard. But as long as the virus is lurking about, every crowded bar or restaurant is a potential superspreader.

And we won’t know until three weeks too late.

All things considered, the administration has done a pretty good job containing the virus. But throughout the pandemic, they’ve misled us about the reasons behind their decision-making and the level of potential risk. Scott has consistently claimed that all decisions are driven by science and data. That’s just not true; he’s clearly got his eye on the economy as well as the science.

In the early weeks, Scott and his officials told us repeatedly that there wasn’t a need for broader testing. They told us specifically that across-the-board testing at prisons and nursing homes would be counterproductive. In truth, they were limiting testing because of a lack of capacity. And they refused to say so.

It’s not their fault; it’s the Trump administration’s. But the situation is what it is: Due to a lack of broad testing and contact tracing, we still don’t know where the virus is and how bad it is. The actual knowledge comes a couple weeks or more after the fact.

Every turn of the spigot is another gamble, and we are the chips. Let’s hope the governor’s luck holds out.

Note: My original post included the 25% restaurant capacity limit, but not the more recent increase to 50%.

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