Mayor, how do we solve the Covid problem? I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me this exact question or some variation of it. They are perplexed or amused when I don’t have an answer. People assume that I have “insider information.” I wish I did.
It’s true that as Mayor of Cedarhurst, I have spoken with dozens of public officials, religious leaders, healthcare professionals and the business community. I have asked all of them the same question. Their answers are as diverse as the world’s response to the crisis. So, I started to search for the answer.
Asking me how to solve the problem is imprecise. Covid-19 is responsible for causing and exposing many problems. The pandemic is an unprecedented tragedy that has affected all of us financially, emotionally and physically. People who have not been infected, fear becoming infected. Sheltering in place is effective but it is very discomforting to be confined.
Our immediate environment doesn’t change. We leave our homes only when we have to. We can’t attend family, social, business or worship events. Parents are trying to home school their children on top of everything else. Lifetimes of savings are depleting and bankruptcies are projected to increase. The anxiety over financial matters, one of the major causes of divorce, is on the rise. Too many people are dealing with depression and grief over illness and death. The problems are all encompassing.
The health issue has appropriately taken center stage. Covid-19 is lethal. It has killed more Americans than the Vietnam War in a much shorter time. Therefore, finding a cure and a vaccine are critical to restoring normalcy. You would think that this simple truth would be universally accepted. However, the battle lines between the political right and left have found a way to mire even this scientific imperative in controversy and gamesmanship.
The shutdown is another example. I have not yet heard any credible argument against imposing this self-inflicted wound on the economy. At least for now, a super-majority of Americans support the initial pause. But the opposite is true about reopening the country. The opinions range from not opening until we are 100 percent sure that no one else will be infected, to the other extreme of opening immediately without worrying whether the disease will spread.
I subscribe to a more moderate view; one that balances the risk of reinfection from opening against our economic collapse if we don’t. The difficulty lies is finding the tipping point. This uneasy balance is so conflicting that I find myself rethinking it often.
As Mayor of Cedarhurst, I have been urging our elected county and state leaders to allow our downtown shopkeepers to open their stores with reasonable guidelines to maximize public safety. Anyone who wants to follow a more sheltered protocol is free to do that. No one will be forced to open. On the other hand, I recognize that not everyone has the option to shelter at home and some business owners and employees will chose to endanger their lives because they believe they have no viable alternative.
I cannot recall ever facing a similar life and death decision individually or as a nation. That is not hyperbole. It is a real dilemma challenging our elected leaders who will choose when and how they will reopen New York. Postponing this decision is not acceptable. It is in reality choosing not to restart the economy while simultaneously hiding from the consequences of that choice. Under the circumstances, procrastination is a desertion of leadership and responsibility.
So I am back to the original question. Mayor, how do we solve the Covid problem? My answer is that we have a two-prong attack. We deal with the health crisis first and foremost. Our nation and our state have devoted enormous resources and attention to that end, and the spread of the infection is subsiding. We have to thank our brave health care providers whose self-sacrifice has helped get us to this point. We owe them the duty to act responsibly in making any decisions.
To every observer it appears that we have flattened the curve, which is good. The urgency that precipitated the shutdown is trending down and we are at the crossroads. Ideally, we should wait for the discovery of a cure and vaccine before we reopen, but we can’t.
The medical experts agree that a cure and vaccine are not imminent. Instead, the metrics prescribed by the medical community indicate that the time to carefully reopen has come. I acknowledge that reopening is fraught with uncertainty, but continuing the shutdown is guaranteed to bring economic ruin. We must reopen and simultaneously leave a cautious hand on the throttle to adjust the speed if the epidemiological data changes. We must proceed in collaboration with the medical professionals to minimize the risks involved.
Opening as safely as possible means that the small local businesses in our downtown should be involved. Essential businesses such as Target and Costco never shut down. They stayed open because they sell food and pharmacy items. There is no reason to believe that buying a shirt in Target or Costco is any safer than buying a shirt on Central Avenue.
To the contrary, it is easier to enforce safety protocols by customers in a local store than with the throng of shoppers inside a big box store. Social distancing, gloves, masks and sanitizer are just as effective in a local store as they are in Walmart or Home Depot. I believe that our business community is responsible and will obey the guidelines for reopening, especially if they know that violations will be costly and enforced.
To be very clear, I am not advocating that we lift all controls and charge ahead at full speed. That is dangerous and irresponsible. Rather, I am asking for parity on behalf of our small business owners. If the big boxes are open and selling more than essential food and pharmacy items, our small businesses should have the same opportunity. The awful truth is that if our downtown remains shuttered much longer, there may not be anything to reopen.
Benjamin Weinstock is the Village of Cedarhurst Mayor.