Gov. Mills on Tuesday ordered all nonessential businesses to close their physical locations in order to cut down on person-to-person contact in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. As Mills spoke, officials in Portland announced a five-day shelter-in-place order.

As the World Health Organization on Monday warned that the U.S. could be the next hot spot, governors in several states issued directives ordering residents to go out only for essential tasks, meaning that more than 100 million Americans have been ordered to stay home.

Meanwhile, President Trump has lost his short-lived patience with these efforts, citing their impact on the economy.

But while the president may be weighing people’s lives against the cost of ongoing economic disruption, that’s not really the choice now in front of us. Everyone wants things to get back to normal, but doing so prematurely will only lengthen the outbreak and strengthen its punch, leading to more deaths – and ultimately a bigger hit on the economy.

Really, we are deciding whether we want to interrupt the spread of the disease now and give the health care system a chance to handle the caseload, or go back about our lives, allowing the disease to multiply, overwhelming hospitals and causing deaths on a broad scale – inviting an economic collapse anyway.

The president appears so focused on the short-term needs of the economy – and its connection to his re-election prospects – that he can’t see the long-term danger the coronavirus holds.

Italy moved slowly at the beginning of its outbreak, trying to balance the needs of public health, personal freedom and the economy. Regardless, an explosion of cases forced the country to put in place a complete, aggressively enforced lockdown two weeks ago, and it’s unclear whether it will be enough to stem the rise in cases – more than 2,000 Italians died of COVID-19 in the four-day span ending Tuesday.

Now the U.S. is on roughly the same trajectory. Experts say a strict two-week lockdown with proper physical distancing would stop the virus’ advancement. Communities across the country are slowly coming on board with this reality, but only in a patchwork. In some states, businesses are closed and people are shut in for all but essential tasks; in others, people are still congregating in large groups.

The orders are largely coming from governors, so the president cannot undo them. But he can affect how seriously some people take them. The orders for social distancing have been in effect only for a week or two, and only in some places. The president should make it clear that we are at the beginning of this, not the end.

When President Trump talks about having full churches by Easter – about the time officials in New York expect that cases there will hit their peak – he is not providing hope. He’s setting Americans up for disappointment, and America for a much worse outbreak.


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