Robert Gehrke: Utah has the right strategy to reopen. Let’s hope it goes well.

Robert Gehrke

Dealing with the coronavirus outbreak is a little like being handcuffed to a tiger.

Sure, you may want to have a nice, intimate meal at a sit-down restaurant, but the tiger may have other dinner plans for you. So you adapt.

You give up your normal routine, you work from home, you keep some distance from friends and family who might fall prey to the beast. You can’t force or coerce or cajole the tiger. Basically, you do everything on the big cat’s terms.

Coronavirus is the same, as Dr. Anthony Fauci captured perfectly.

“You've got to be realistic," Fauci told CNN a while back. “And you've got to understand that you don't make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline. … It doesn't matter what you say — one week, two weeks, three weeks — you've got to go with what the situation on the ground is."

It’s a truth that, so far, state leaders and their counterparts at Salt Lake County seem to be handling in the right way — offering a strategy instead of a concrete plan.

I’m not saying with certainty that, yes, May 1 is absolutely the perfect time to let restaurants reopen, along with salons, gyms and a handful of other businesses. But our leaders are looking at the right metrics — and the data right now offers some moderately encouraging signs.

The transmission rate is hovering right around one — meaning an infected person is passing the virus to one other person, well below what we saw at the initial outbreak when we averaged one person infecting five or six people.

That kind of spread would have overwhelmed hospitals which are, at this point, managing fine. As of Wednesday, Salt Lake County, home to more than half of the state’s confirmed cases, had just 52 COVID-19 patients in the hospital, well below the 1,100-bed capacity.

Shortages of protective equipment have been largely addressed, which made restarting surgeries a reasonable first step.

Restaurants are a good second step, provided they follow the strict hygiene and distancing standards. That will make for an awkward experience for the near term — waiters with masks serving patrons seated at least 6 feet apart from a safe distance. But get used to it if you plan to eat out.

It will help a big employer — roughly 100,000 Utahns work in the food service industry — but it doesn’t mean things will be easy for restaurateurs. A survey by the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association said that 60% of owners anticipate they will still be losing money. There are additional expenses for protective equipment and challenges meeting the distancing requirements in the kitchen.

Michael McHenry, owner of Ginger Street in downtown Salt Lake City and other restaurants in the area, said he won’t be reopening his dining room this weekend and plans to start with some limited patio seating as he works through the logistics.

But McHenry is embracing the opportunity.

“Six weeks ago, it was about survival. Now I think we understand the climate of this pandemic state and we understand social distancing. How society is going to entertain local business … that has changed forever,” he said. “Yes, it is more of a challenge and there is more of an opportunity to change and adapt. … Your business plan must shift. If it hasn’t already, it’s going to have to.”

Hair and nail salons and movie theaters will have to cope with similar distancing and cleanliness standards, which might not be easy. Small gyms seem manageable, but large gyms will need to be particularly rigorous.

All of these businesses, operating at reduced capacity with additional costs, are going to need help from the state and federal governments.

We also should be aware that, as we take these baby steps toward normalcy, experts do expect a rise in the spread of the coronavirus — we don’t know how much.

“As we lift restrictions we expect [it] will rise. It’s unclear, because there haven’t really been other states or other countries that have lifted restrictions and not seen a big spike,” said Lindsay Keegan, an epidemiologist at the University of Utah who is helping the state model the viral spread.

If it’s a small bump, it could mean some restrictions return. If it is a big spike, the concern again becomes overwhelming hospitals. The idea, she said, is to not have a big tall peak — like in the models we’ve all seen by now — but more like a wave pool, with the cases rising and falling as restrictions are loosened, and then ratcheted back to keep the virus in check.

“I’m hopeful that the state government has been looking at science and data, and if we start to notice a massive uptick I hope they’re prepared to step backwards maybe and close down some of the openings,” Keegan said.

The challenge with that is that, because COVID-19 symptoms don’t show up for a week, once the testing detects a spike, you’re at least a week behind the virus and, like a freight train, it’s hard to stop once it’s moving.

That’s why, for the most part, we should behave like nothing has changed — distance, sanitize and wear a mask and remember that, even though we’re taking baby steps toward normalcy, the virus doesn’t care about your timeline. You can’t rush a tiger.