Mike Leavitt was out doing his social distancing the other night when he remembered he was supposed to be on C-SPAN. So he sat down and connected with his smartphone.
The former governor of Utah, former head of both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services, had just the right image for what Utah, the nation and the world will be doing in the coming days and weeks as we gingerly move to restart the economy without reenergizing the COVID-19 pandemic. (The interview with Leavitt starts at about 48 minutes on this recording.)
“It is a bit like we are walking out onto an icy lake," Leavitt said. "We’re not sure how thick the ice is. How do you do that? You walk a few feet, you stop, pause and you get a sense of whether you feel comfortable or not, whether you hear cracking sounds. If you do you move back, but if you don’t you move forward. And that’s where we are as a country.”
Now Utah, like many other states, is starting to step out onto the ice. We have learned some things, had some success, gained some confidence and have some reason to hope that life can get back to something a little less confining.
But we still have reason to be aware that we may be walking onto thin ice.
Gov. Gary Herbert has rightly made it clear that we are not going back to life as normal. In moving the dial of his public health directive from Red to Orange, there are still a great many precautions that must be observed.
Schools remain closed and there are to be gatherings of no more than 20 people. Restaurants and gyms can reopen, but staff and customers are expected to keep up their physical distancing, wear masks and make extra efforts to keep everything clean. We are still supposed to stay home as much as we can, limit travel, don’t shake hands.
The state is willing to go to Orange only because there is reason to believe that being at Red worked. Cases of COVID-19 continue to grow, but hospitals have not been overwhelmed and the number of tests done climbs every day.
Whether this easing of restrictions proves to have been a good idea or a reckless step into the darkness will depend less on Herbert and the rest of state and local governments but on individuals, businesses and heath care providers. On us.
Our doctors, nurses and other health care workers and institutions have stepped up. Most of us have shifted our habits and expectations to accommodate what needed to be done. It has been easier for some than for others, and will remain so. State and federal aid to idle workers and affected businesses will still be necessary, and allowances must be made for workers and employers who either do not feel safe going back to business as usual, as well as for those who may see a serious decline in business as customers don’t yet feel comfortable going back to old habits, no matter what elected officials may tell us.
We will also need to keep a careful watch on the more vulnerable among us, particularly residents of senior care homes where the bulk of the serious illnesses and deaths have occurred.
If we continue to follow — or exceed — the recommendations of state and local officials and health experts and the numbers continue to move in the right direction, then we can reopen more aspects of life and look forward to a new, more careful, normal.
If not, then we need to be fully prepared to step off the ice.