Birx: Seeing lockdown protesters without masks is “devastatingly worrisome”

They’ll feel guilty for the rest of their lives if they come home from the protest and infect grandma and grandpa, she tells Chris Wallace. Will they? The more aggressive “reopen now” messengers on social media often remind skeptics that a certain number of the vulnerable will inevitably die in the course of restoring America’s economic vitality.

Nothing would signal commitment to the cause of liberating U.S. states from the tyranny of lockdown like sacrificing one’s own ancestors.

Health risks aside, it’s exquisitely stupid of protesters as a political matter not to follow basic good practices on preventing infection while demonstrating. At best they look reckless, at worst they seem denialist about the threat from the virus. I suspect people who might otherwise be persuaded that it’s time to lift the restrictions watch the footage and come away thinking, “They’re either idiots or cranks.” The infestation of anti-vaxxers in the ranks doesn’t help.

The protests are uninteresting. More interesting and much more consequential for a second wave of the epidemic are state experiments on reopening certain businesses. I looked at data yesterday that proves Americans are going out more, but that data didn’t show whether they’re getting more slack about social distancing. For instance, they tended to patronize fast-food spots and liquor stores but not the type of businesses where one might linger indoors for long, like clothing stores or dine-in restaurants. Today’s Wall Street Journal story about states that are reopening does show an uptick in traffic to businesses like that, though:

In Georgia, more than 4 million people visited stores on Saturday, the most since March 19, before the state’s stay-at-home order went into effect. Saturday also brought the most foot traffic retail shops in Oklahoma and South Carolina have had since March…

The biggest draw in two of the states were travel-related, which includes visits to hotels, booking agencies, airports, train and bus terminals. Other popular destinations were clothing and shoe stores and health care, which includes dentistry and nursing homes.

In the three states, about a million more people went to restaurants than the weekend before and about 70,000 more people went to entertainment venues like movie theaters, bowling alleys or sporting goods operations.

Foot traffic to businesses that specialize in entertainment was up at least 33 percent over the previous weekend in all three states, and in Georgia and South Carolina traffic to apparel stores was up at least 35 percent. Retail foot traffic in each state was still well below where it was in March, before the pandemic sent Americans into self-isolation, but I bet it’ll get close to normal levels (if not quite fully normal) sooner than most people think. Evidence of a second wave won’t show up for weeks even if a rash of infections was seeded yesterday. It’ll be easy to assume that everything’s fine until the numbers prove that it isn’t.

How much does it matter to foot traffic whether a state is formally “open” or still “closed”? Maybe less than we think. Nate Silver analyzed several different variables to try to determine which states are seeing more mobility lately and which aren’t. It turns out that politics — and weather — were more important factors than whether a stay-at-home order was in place.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic made a fascinating catch in Apple’s mobility data, which I wrote about yesterday. Here are the trends in driving, walking, and use of mass transit (per searches on Apple Maps) in Nashville, Tennessee, which is currently under a lockdown order…

…and here’s what the trends look like in the world’s most famously “open” city, Stockholm, Sweden:

The trends are completely different, with walking and driving on the way up in Nashville and on the way down in Stockholm, but the raw percentages are … almost identical. Swedes have begun hunkering down just as Nashville residents have begun testing the waters outdoors. Maybe the lockdowns just don’t matter. People are going to behave in more or less risky ways depending on their perceptions of the risk in their hometown. Information, not government policy, will shape what they do.

Just one catch. What if the information they’re getting is incomplete, or downright bad? I think there’s a sense across the U.S. right now that things have improved, which is partially true. New York City, the epicenter, has seen deaths and hospitalizations fall dramatically. And the United States as a whole is no longer seeing the number of new cases climb. But nationally we’re not on the “down” side of the epidemic curve; New York is, but new cases and deaths across the rest of the country are steady, not falling. And the story in many individual states is … not great.

We’ll know in a month whether Birx’s worries were well-founded or not. If there’s no second wave, states will reopen more aggressively by mid-June. If there is a second wave, and if it’s big, consumer demand will collapse.

Here’s a little more from today’s interview, with Birx reminding early-reopen states that the federal guidelines are there for a reason.

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