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OPINION | New rules for Covid summer: Be flexible and vigilant

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AMERICA is entering a complicated new phase of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The remainder of 2020 warrants flexibility and tolerance, trying different ways to adapt to new evidence. In a country with such fractured politics, this will be no small challenge.

That challenge is a function of a complicated public-health picture combined with contradictory public attitudes. Even as economic activity is resuming, Covid cases are rising in about a dozen states. This isn’t a second wave; it’s a series of spikes off the first surge. In the coming months, some states will see infections rise while others fall. The trick will be to manage the constant risk of Covid while restarting normal life.

Policy makers are inclined to react to this challenge by looking for exactly the right set of rules to impose. But that overestimates how much of the country’s response to the virus has been a matter of policy, in the traditional sense. A lot of the hand-wringing about whether the shutdowns were justified makes the same mistake. It is clear in retrospect that there wasn’t much of a choice about whether to shut down. Public fear of the virus drove the closures. Travel and consumer activity collapsed well before governors intervened. If the country hadn’t shut down in March, we would have surely shut down by April when Covid deaths reached 3,000 a day. This is what happened in the U.K., where policy makers tried to avoid shutdowns but soon discovered the public wouldn’t let them.

Officials reacted to public fears, formalizing what people had started doing on their own. That inevitably led to some needlessly crude and arbitrary enforcement measures, which rubbed some people the wrong way. But it essentially involved turning the public’s revealed preferences into a policy framework.

The same is happening now around reopening. Only a small number of states met the criteria set by the White House and public-health groups for starting to reopen. But as summer approached, Americans got fed up with isolation. They started to go out again, creating informal new norms, and officials adapted policies to try to conform safely. Mass political protests, however justified, made that process more complex. As befits a free society, mayors and governors have mostly followed the public’s inclinations.

Yet public attitudes are now as mixed and contradictory as the epidemiology data. A forthcoming survey of 3,500 Americans conducted this month by our American Enterprise Institute colleague Daniel Cox found that 58% of Americans want public officials to “take all necessary steps to ensure the public is safe even if it means keeping businesses closed longer and hurting the economy.” But that is down from 78% in late March. Some 41% supported allowing businesses to open “even if it means putting some people at risk,” nearly double the 22% in March.

That explains what’s happening around the country, and also why so many people are uneasy. And it suggests that, along with ramping up testing and tracing, public officials need to focus on building public confidence and minimizing weariness.

That means, for example, encouraging (and practicing) sensible behavior that can reduce the spread. Wearing face masks is the simplest and most effective, along with efforts to practice hygiene and distancing when possible. Officials from the president down must avoid politicizing these measures. They are neither conspiracies against your dignity nor proof of your enlightenment. They are sensible ways of reducing infection and fear.

When local hot spots arise, mayors and governors must trace the outbreaks to their origin and be ready to curtail specific activities that are sources of spread. The public is clearly willing to follow focused guidance. But broad shutdowns are unlikely to be tolerated this summer — and therefore are unlikely to be proposed, regardless of what the epidemiology shows.

This new phase of the pandemic doesn’t pose a binary choice for the country. It requires leaders to respond to both scientific evidence and public opinion in measured, flexible ways — to help build the patience to get through what could be a hard fall and winter.

The ability to trace the infected and treat the sick is improving, and there is hope that a vaccine will come next year. But for now, no one has a policy formula for fully beating the virus. Different places will confront different circumstances and follow different courses, and the public will need to tolerate that and to learn from the evidence it provides.

Such forbearance is a lot to ask of an often dysfunctional polity. But the first step to achieving it must be to see that vigilant flexibility, rather than merely the right set of rules, is what the summer will require.

Dr. Gottlieb is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and was commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, 2017-19. He serves on health-care boards and is a partner at the venture-capital firm New Enterprise Associates. Mr. Levin is director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of National Affairs.

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