In his briefing Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke about Trump administration infection projections and the itchiness around the country to loosen coronavirus shutdown restrictions and get back to work. He said that though his fellow public officials often dance around the issue, what all of them are really grappling with as they figure out how and when to open back up is the value of a human life. Fair enough.

Then, regarding New York, the epicenter of the outbreak, he said: To him, human life is priceless, and therefore “our reopening plan doesn’t have a trade-off.”

This is false to the point of being silly. It straw-mans many public officials, Democratic and Republican, who are responsibly grappling with how and when to ease up on lockdowns, carefully balancing costs and benefits. Every blueprint has a trade-off, including Cuomo’s, and it’s not helpful for the governor to pretend otherwise.

Imagine that coronavirus infections, now fewer than 60 per day in New York City, keep falling, and deaths do, too. Then suppose that, in concert with a carefully reopened economy, they begin to increase slightly. Would this mean that pieces of the just-eased clampdown necessarily need to be swiftly reimposed, or that a few additional infections, which will ultimately lead to additional deaths, might be something we should live with in order to live with fewer constraints? Obviously the latter.

Yes, we need more testing and contract tracing so that we have the ability, whenever possible, to identify and isolate those who are infected so we can stop outbreaks from happening. But even if we have all that, we’re going to be living with a certain degree of risk for a long time.

There is never going to be a mathematical formula to tell us how many new jobs or layoffs prevented are worth how many additional cases or deaths. Math fails us here, just as utilitarian philosophy often does. We can’t determine what yields the “greatest good for the greatest number” because we can’t define the “greatest good.”

These are difficult moral questions that every individual will answer a bit differently.

Now, it’s true: Cuomo may have a lower tolerance for COVID-19 deaths than some other governors do, and that may be admirable. I happen to think it is. New Yorkers’ aversion to risk is generally higher than that of Nebraskans because the problem has been the worst by far here, and the speed at which a virus could spread again in a dense city far exceeds the speed at which it could spread elsewhere.

But we still have tough trade-offs coming.

Back when our obsession was terrorism, we did many things to harden targets, but we also told ourselves that if we altered our character too profoundly to try to stay safe, the terrorists “would win.”

That was a facile, borderline stupid, way to put it. The terrorists didn’t win every time we walked through an advanced airport scanner; we won, by ensuring we could continue to safely fly on airplanes.

Nor is the analogy helpful in other ways. The risk of getting infected with coronavirus is orders of magnitude larger than the risk of being a victim of terrorism. Even the risk of dying is far higher. And there’s no such thing as the virus winning if we alter our habits, particularly if we do so in relatively innocuous ways, such as washing our hands.

Still, there’s a basic insight we can borrow from those days, which is that risk of injury and death ought to be responsibly minimized to the extent possible while tending to other needs and values.

Besides, remember: The logic of imposing social distancing restrictions was not to eliminate every death. It was to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed, and, in the process, save as many lives as possible, understanding full well that not all could be saved.

Nor are all restrictions created equal. We need to smartly distinguish so that we can keep in place the ones that reduce risk the most while jettisoning those that reduce risk relatively little.

For instance, assuming no vaccine emerges soon, there’s an especially strong case for the foreseeable future to keep in place strict regulations preventing anyone who might be infected from entering a nursing home. There’s probably also a strong case for Broadway theaters and other large gatherings to remain shut down.

There’s a relatively weak case to keep playgrounds closed or keep a lid on small gatherings.

Recognizing that not all rules are created equal is acknowledging that there’s no such thing as zero risk. Andrew Cuomo knows this. He should speak and act accordingly.


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