Weighing Lives Against Livelihoods

The battle over the coronavirus shutdown was bitter, divisive and partisan. Already, the battle over opening back up and going back out is bitter, divisive and partisan.

Even in a national emergency, even facing a public health disaster and an economic disaster, we seem incapable of pulling together.

The partisan split has been there from the beginning. President Trump resisted a shutdown, then accepted it reluctantly and impatiently.

Democratic governors were quicker than Republicans to order people to stay home. Democratic-voting cities and counties moved quicker than those leaning Republican.

That’s partly because Democratic states and counties are more urban, more densely populated and more likely to have infections.

Republican areas were more likely to believe dismissals of the virus early on from Trump, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the conservative information ecosystem.

North Carolina, always a battleground, is split. While customers wore gloves and masks to grocery stores in Raleigh, a friend said people in Carteret County mocked her when she wore surgical gloves to the store.

Governor Roy Cooper has to balance the competing interests of public health versus economic health. Doctors, hospitals and public health leaders pushed for a shutdown; the Chamber of Commerce resisted.

John Hood, president of North Carolina’s conservative John W. Pope Foundation, wrote a column headlined, “Shelter in place isn’t sustainable.”

Hood said, “Our government hasn’t just shut down businesses (some potentially for good), thrown hundreds of thousands out of work, and disrupted the daily lives of millions of North Carolinians with no clearly articulated standard for when the dictates will be lifted. Our government has also suspended our basic liberties as citizens of a free society.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Republican nominee for Governor, questioned Governor Cooper’s order that closed bars and restaurants starting St. Patrick’s Day. Forest said the Council of State, which is mostly Republicans, should have been consulted. None of the Council of State members seemed keen on wading into the fight. Forest backed away.

Republican legislative leaders have been circumspect so far. But the legislature returns to Raleigh April 28. The political distancing will be greater than the social distancing. There likely will be battles over the budget, including helping the unemployed, helping businesses and meeting health care needs.

There will be uncertainty about state revenues. Teachers and state employees may go another year without pay raises. Governor Cooper will say Medicaid expansion is needed more than ever, and Republicans will resist.

As April gives way to May, the pressure will come to loosen stay-home orders and let businesses reopen. The push has begun already.

The economic carnage – 16 million Americans lost their jobs in just three weeks, and one estimate says one-fourth of the nation’s restaurants could go out of business – will bolster arguments that the shutdowns aren’t sustainable. Going back to business as usual, though, risks people’s lives.

These are not easy decisions to make. They’re being made, mostly, by Governors and other elected and appointed state and local leaders. They are, literally, life and death decisions.

Do we let restaurants reopen so they can stay in business and so their employees can pay for rent, food and child care? If we do, how many people could get sick and die because of that decision?

If ever there was a time America needs leaders – and advocates on both sides – to rise above simplistic answers, self-righteousness and selfish partisanship, this is it.

These next few weeks will tell us a lot. We’ll see who rises to the moment. And who doesn’t.

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