Opening up: Making responsible choices in an uncertain situation

May 13th, 2020
This article is featured in the Acting Missionally issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

Open for business 

As of early May, several states have begun to relax emergency restrictions on “nonessential” businesses that were put in place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. By fits and starts, these months-long restrictions seem destined to end in the near future. 

In some states these moves to “open up” have raced ahead of the public health guidance from federal and state officials, leaving mayors, county executives and health experts to plead with citizens to exercise a restraint no longer required of them by state order. In other states — like Texas, where I live — reopening orders have preempted local measures, including ordinances requiring masks in public. 

All of this comes amid a confusing mix of protests, lobbying efforts and public uncertainty. All of this confusion leaves us to answer a vital question. How should businesses and community organizations go about deciding to “open up,” especially as they navigate conflicting guidance and, in many cases, their own dire financial needs? 

In April, the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidelines for reopening the country that focused on “gating” criteria for three “phases” of returning to normal. Nevertheless, many areas — including Dallas, where the church I serve is located — are allowing businesses to resume without meeting the first phrase criteria. As per the CDC guidelines, older people or those with another risk factor are “strongly encouraged” to stay home, but no provision has been made for at-risk workers to receive paid leave if their employer reopens before they can return to work. Considering how many infections and deaths have been concentrated among “essential” workers, it is easy to see how many people would be concerned about risking exposure as businesses open again. 

This forces us to ask how we can navigate these competing demands and what precautions should be taken — especially with vulnerable workers and church congregants — as reopening progresses.

Competing goods? 

Since the beginning of the outbreak, the public debate over restrictions has assumed a trade-off between the seemingly disparate goals of saving lives and saving livelihoods. Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, gained notoriety by saying explicitly, “There are more important things than living.” While the thought may seem callous to many, Patrick’s was not an opinion held by one man alone. Many politicians and commentators agreed, especially with the implicit idea that our only available choices are an uncontrolled illness or widespread economic ruin. 

It’s not hard to understand why people worry about this. If a business operating on small margins and lacking access to a great deal of credit isn’t allowed to make sales, it isn’t going to be able to make payroll or cover rent. As of this writing, an unprecedented wave of job losses has led to over 33 million people filing for unemployment benefits, and even this staggering number is likely an undercount of real job losses. With the loss of a job often comes a loss of health insurance, housing instability, and an acute risk of falling below the poverty line. When circumstances appear to force people to make a choice between a heightened risk to their health on one hand and the threat of financial ruin on the other, you can’t blame them for preferring to risk the former. 

On the other hand, it’s not at all obvious that opening up will assure economic well-being. Restaurant reservations plunged before any state took action to close them down. Air travel and car sales, which were not restricted, plummeted in April because people did not want to travel or take on large, debt-funded purchases. Simply allowing customers to return doesn’t guarantee that they will, even if those customers have not themselves lost their income. 

All the same, reopening will surely bring back some revenue and help some businesses stay afloat. The question for many individual businesses will be how much cost and inconvenience they can bear in order to reduce risk. The bigger question we will have to answer together is whether “the economy” and human lives are really two goods that have to compete with each other. Is “the economy” really reducible to outputs, GDP figures, or — worse yet — stock market fluctuations? Can a “livelihood” or health insurance coverage only be distributed through a job? 

For our society, things that appear like hard and fast rules of life may just be choices in disguise. There are certainly measures that can support households and businesses without forcing them to accept a high risk of infection. Some were implemented in emergency legislation in March and April, but more could be done if we so choose. The risk to “essential” workers is not fixed and inevitable but may be changed by precautions and resources like paid sick leave, safer working conditions and adequate protective equipment. How we open up, and what happens when we do, depends on the choices we make together. 

What can be opened 

Our response to a pandemic is, inevitably, about much more than epidemiology or economics. It’s about morality. If we’re honest, we’re being asked to open up more than our businesses and workplaces. We will also have to open up conversations about our ideas and about whose lives matter and about what costs we will bear together to ensure they matter. 

As we’ve already seen, this intellectual opening up can go in different ways. A time traveler from February might well be shocked at how we’ve managed to accept such an ever-growing death toll, and how quickly the public conversation moved from direct aid to households, businesses and states, to the riskier proposition of pushing those still employed back into their workplaces. 

At the same time, we have seen swift and generous mobilization around ordinary tasks like distributing lunches to school children, filling local food banks, rent abatement and eviction forbearance. Unemployment benefits were extended (albeit temporarily) to part-time, freelance and gig-economy workers. People cooperated to distribute masks to health workers and others at risk and willingly changed their lives in drastic ways to protect vulnerable neighbors and hospital workers. 

While we figure out what, when and how to open, we should take the opportunity to address this moral challenge directly. We may become more callous and dismissive of human suffering, or we may become energized by the thought that we truly are in this together. We have the chance to emotionally distance ourselves from victims who may differ from us — they may be older than us, do different sorts of jobs than we do — but we also have the chance to discover a new capacity for empathy in our interdependence and our universal need for protection. 


Hard to understand 

Sifting through news reports, social media feeds and government documents, we may feel that we are obligated to become amateur epidemiologists, economists and statisticians in order to understand our current situation. Take the example of face masks. Do they work to prevent the spread of the virus? Well, that may depend on what we mean by “work.” They seem to make transmission less likely, but the homemade nonsurgical masks many of us are using right now are most useful if we happen to be carrying the virus. In other words, they may end up protecting other people, but they won’t protect us. Then again, if we all wear them, we’ll all be protected. There’s a question of fact here, but it turns out to be impossible to separate from an ethical challenge: will we, together, take on a practice that benefits us in general even if it has limited value to each one of us individually? 

As a general rule, humans are not great at grasping probabilities and percentages. When we eyeball it, the death rates from influenza (about 0.1%) and COVID-19 (estimated between 0.5 and 1% so far) both look quite low. But if half of America eventually gets infected (a plausible scenario), that’s the difference between 300,000 deaths and nearly three million. It’s hard for nonspecialists to deal with statistics on a scale that large. 

Decision makers have to work hard to watch out for information that seems to confirm their biases, and to check for different perspectives before assuming that a course of action is helpful, useful or excessively risky.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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