It’s time to start reopening our economy in stages

I am proud of Dallas residents and how we have calmly responded to the COVID-19 viral outbreak. It has been hard to hear from so many how difficult these past weeks of quarantine and economic shutdown have been. But I believe the shutdown was necessary until we could better understand the threat.

The thing that strikes me the most about COVID-19 is how much we didn’t know when it first came to our attention in March. On one hand, we had access to incredible information and modeling from health professionals that predicted significant infection and mortality rates. On the other hand, testing was almost nonexistent in the U.S. and foreign reporting was opaque, so the data was imperfect and frequently changed.

Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services, has been very clear in his council briefings that closing nonessential businesses and sheltering in place were not implemented to prevent infections from COVID-19; they were designed to prevent our health care system from becoming overburdened. An overburdened health care system could have led to increased deaths.

We have all been affected by the government restrictions that were enacted. Students have become de facto home-schoolers. We have shut down significant portions of our economy. Unemployment has gone up significantly — projections suggest we will reach levels in April comparable to the Great Depression — and will continue to do so.

This cannot last.

“Flattening the curve” was about keeping the curve below the line that represented our health care capacity. Thankfully, we have begun to get the information needed to make sure our health care system will not be overburdened and that those who are infected will get care. We have data that shows how many have symptoms serious enough for hospital admission. We see how many of us are asymptomatic or have flu like symptoms and can go home. We know who is the most vulnerable and needs the most protection. And we can count how many available hospital beds and ventilators are in reserve if ICU cases should spike.

We can also see that the curve itself is not the size that was predicted. And further, while we were waiting for the predicted peak, our health care system had time to build up. The result is a system operating at 30% to 50% of its capacity and facing a much-diminished peak. Thus, it would seem we can loosen governmental restrictions to allow more freedom of movement without threatening our health outcomes.

Am I proposing that we end the emergency orders and open our economy all at once? Of course not. That would reverse the progress we’ve made. I am proposing we open more of our businesses in stages over a reasonable amount of time in order to prevent the onset of irreparable economic damage.

We have the data to manage the curve, not just flatten it. Maybe we decide 80% ICU bed utilization is a number that doesn’t overburden our health care system and use that as a benchmark. Maybe we open our restaurants and bars at 50% of occupancy or for limited hours. Maybe we require more stringent health precautions as we open other businesses. I am not a health care professional, but I know there are experts who can make adjustments that will allow us to manage the burden in a more effective manner.

Pressure on our society is building, and sheltering in place in conjunction with closing all nonessential businesses week after week was never a long-term solution. The question has always been when we would understand this new virus enough to be able to change tactics. I think we have reached that point. Add in the spare capacity we have built up in our health care system, and we have even more flexibility to ease those initial restrictions.

This crisis and its aftermath are tests, and we must meet them head-on. It is time for us to move from the blanket shutdown toward a more targeted response that begins to open the economy back up, a response that more accurately aligns with the reduced threat COVID-19 presents to our more than capable health care system.

David Blewett is a Dallas City Council member. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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