Getting to Goldilocks

by Chris Spencer

The news was good overall on Friday when Governor Northam announced the creation of a COVID-19 task force and presented a preliminary blueprint for reopening Virginia.[1] Like all works in progress, both could use tweaking, but they are good starts.

Let’s imagine how the task force could achieve victory.

I. A Beginning

The force convenes quickly by telephone for a one-hour introduction. The session is led by the temporary chair. The members take two minutes or less to introduce themselves, their main hopes and their main fears. Why include hopes and fears? True, they are inherently emotional, but they are important. Hopes are aspirational. Fears are cautionary. Both are real. Both influence. Getting them out in the open is informative, liberating, and a good way to start a dialogue.

The members set goals. Enter Goldilocks. The goals cannot be too hot or too cold: just right.

Substantively, the goal is to get the Commonwealth reopened piece by piece[2] in a reasonable way with reasonable risks. The world is a risky and imperfect place. Perfect safety is unachievable[3] and one best admits that up front.

Temporally, the goal is alacrity.[4] A preliminary plan will issue in two weeks. Updates will follow every other week at first, then less frequently as things settle. This is fast but time is short. Patience is thin. The economy and the tax base are hurting. People want and need to get back to work and back to school.[5]

Globally, the goal is reasonableness: reasonable restoration of supply (open businesses) and demand (customers with the desire and means to patronize).[6]

The members are realistic. They know there will be tradeoffs. Nothing — even freedom — comes without a price.

The members resolve to be open. Open to ideas. Open to admitting error. Open in communication. Open with business. Open with the public. They know that opens them to criticism. They will never make everyone happy and they are sure to make some people mad. But they would rather benefit from constructive criticism than hide in secrecy.

The resolve to do the best they can for as many as they can.

The support staff introduces the task force’s infrastructure: Google docs or some other widely available, widely compatible, and inexpensive or free secure platform.

The meeting ends on time, as all well-run meetings do.

II. A Middle

The members vote remotely on two co-chairs, one from government and one not, and a steering committee to make interim decisions to keep things moving. The introductions signaled who were the natural team leaders. They also nominate new members from groups not yet represented.[7]

Recognizing that they don’t have all the answers, the members contact colleagues in their spheres to solicit and bounce off ideas. They know people other members might want to talk to, and they facilitate introductions.

The steering committee posts a template that members can use to prepare their opening proposals. It presents a common format for laying out how how to identify and determine which pieces of the member’s community (restaurants, museums, factories, etc.) can open when and how. It recognizes that one criterion will not fit all situations. It rejects an overall fourteen-straight-days-of-decreasing-cases[8] as an unrealistic threshold for reopening. For one thing, trends are inherently variable. Nothing viral ever goes in one direction every day for long. For another, the rate of hospitalizations is already low and flat, and there are plenty of beds, as this slide from the governor’s preliminary plan shows.[9]

The committee recognizes that the virus cannot be eliminated, and its spread cannot be stopped. It can only be managed. The steering committee announces a goal of keeping the curve relatively flat over time at a level that the health care system can manage without depriving those with other illnesses of the resources they need.

The members submit their opening plans by way of the task force portal. The other members adjust their own plans based on what they have learned from others. They suggest improvements to others.

The steering committee also opens communication with task forces in other states, in business

In a series of meetings, the members refine the proposals. The task force approves them when they become ready. No one plan is hostage to others. By introducing the plans when they are ready, reopening is phased in, and sluggish groups are incentivized to get going.

The members realize that some parts of the economy are not ready to reopen yet. Concert venues with alcohol fueled mosh pits are probably not the best idea right now. But those business owners and their customers have rights, and the task force will have to sort those out, striking balances with and between operatics and punkers, teetotallers and barflies, atheists and mega-pastors.

III. An End

Within two weeks, the plans are ready to put into place. Each plan is phased. Some businesses in some places reopen immediately. Others open later. The task force sees how the plans work, and makes adjustments from time to time. There is loud criticism from different quarters. Some use unhappy statistics to agitate for total lockdown. Others want all limits removed. Most people just get along and go along.

Virginia’s approach becomes a model for the rest of the country. It’s task force becomes the de facto leader among its peers.

There are anecdotal stories of hardship. But people vote with their feet and their wallets. Some businesses falter and die. Others crawl back. It’s a surreal spring, and a different kind of summer. Beach blankets are farther apart than they used to be. People are more respectful, if not more polite. Some behave badly, but that’s nothing new, and that’s the exception.

By July, we have learned more about how to manage the virus and ourselves. By August, we are ready to get back to school and to work. We know that flu season will bring a resurgence, but by then we are ready.

The task force remains in place through spring 2021. It disbands on Memorial Day. It leaves behind valuable lessons about how to wisely manage the next crisis.

Chris Spencer is an attorney living in Richmond.

[1] We suggested just that last week, but it is plain the governor had the idea first.  Congratulations to him.

[2] Pieces of the economy.  Pieces of industries within the economy.  Pieces of the Commonwealth.

[3] There are about 24,000 traffic fatalities and over 2,000,000 traffic injuries per year.  We could eliminate them all by just walking.  But only the most truculent Luddite would propose that.

[4] Not haste. But not ivory-tower plodding, either.  Broad restrictions cannot remain for two years, despite what some may think.

[5] Online schooling will not suffice. One out of four households nationally has no internet-connected computer. Many households do not have enough computers or bandwidth for each school aged child and each adult working from home. Even if everyone could get online, teachers could not keep all those students focused and progressing.

[6] Economies are cyclical. People will have no money to spend unless they have jobs to earn the money.  Jobs produce income.  Income equals spending potential.  Spending supports jobs.  Jobs produce income.

[7] It appears that no hospitals, no infectious disease experts, no public safety personnel (police, judiciary), and no legal advisors are on the task force.

[8] See the Governor’s slide deck.

[9] One wonders whether “available” beds means empty, or not occupied by a COVID patient. That line looks odd.

[10] Cancer isn’t on hold. Neither is mental health. If anything, the latter need is more pressing than before.

[11] The U.S. Chamber of Commerce requests common best-practices recommendations instead of inconsistent requirements.

[12] Disraeli said there are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.  It’s in the nature of statistics that one can always find something to shriek about.

[13] New shows and channels have had to lay off most reporters because there is little advertising revenue.  They use more and more online posts and “victim” stories to fill air time cheap.

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31 responses to “Getting to Goldilocks

  1. IV Epilogue — Praise and honors for the non-participants.

  2. Then there is that nasty reality that the virus is paying no attention what-so-ever to pronouncements that there is still bad stuff like cancer out there so it just cannot be that we’re having this virus, it really is screwing up what we want.

    In terms of “victims”, yes, and the most amazing thing is that the term “bleeding hearts” has now shifted to the right politically. Amazing…

  3. re: ” There is loud criticism from different quarters. Some use unhappy statistics to agitate for total lockdown. Others want all limits removed. Most people just get along and go along.”

    Not really:


    • I want to join one of the protests… wade into the crowd in view of the news cameras… surreptitiously snort pepper and “… See how they run like pigs from a gun …See how they fly”

      • Uh, I know that crowd, Dean Nancy. You’d be shot down before you hit the button a second time. Same folks were here for the gun rally, with better weapons than most infantry companies. Wouldn’t try it. It would be a classic self-defense argument, given nobody knows what you are spraying.

        It is starting to look to me, with no models to confuse me, like a stable situation. There will continue to be a certain level of cases, a certain patient load in the hospitals, as this works through. If steadily diminishing cases is to be the standard, we may indeed be waiting two years. It’s just here until we reach herd immunity or there is a vaccine.

        • No, no, no, I snort pepper, i.e., start sneezing explosively. Although, you may be right. That crowd would kill their wounded and eat their children, but only after they born.

  4. New Idea – Covid19 parties! Stop all this stupid procrastination and obstructionism and get your very own herd immunity right now. Stop hiding under your beds – do it!

    Carry that sandwich board at the next rally – offer “free sneezing” from a “real” …infected “victim”! 😉

    • It was clear from the very beginning that the social distance/lockdown approach was merely a delaying tactic. The bell curves included the same number of cases, deaths. I understand you are happy to see the economy destroyed and Trump’s political problems magnified. Had lunch with an economist friend (no masks!) and our thought is each week of shutdown adds a month to the recession (depression for some industries.). I said in this space weeks ago, I’m one of the vulnerable and I’m not asking anybody to destroy the economy for me. May 8 works for me.

      • Trump could actually accelerate the recovery by holding rallies again.

        It would be win-win!


        Here’s the basic problem. Some folks can deal with realities and do what has to be done – even if it is really painful and others don’t give a rip – they just want what they want.

      • You could walk around the ER pretending to be with someone.

    • I know sarcasm, but herd immunity, if there is immunity, begins at 70%. Even being generous to the Santa Clara testing, that would require another 10x infections, so 500,000 deaths, roughly speaking.

  5. I wish the commenters had focused on the substance of the Goldilocks process put forward. I found it reasonable, but too optimistic. I have participated in too many task forces over the years to think it would be this smooth. For one thing, I don’t think it is feasible to do in two weeks all that Mr. Spencer proposed in “The Middle”. But this is a plan offered in good faith.

    One element that seems to have been overlooked in all the comments is the administration’s change in its guideline metrics. It is no longer talking about a decrease in the number of cases, but in the percentage of positives. As we have been saying, if we are going to wait for the number of positive cases to decrease while we are increasing testing, we will all have to stay in our homes for much longer. But, if we change the critierion to a decrease in the percentage of positive results, that is more realistic. To be consistent over days, the measure would need to be the percentage of positive results per XXX (1,000?) tests.

    • I actually read the entire thing which did sound not unreasonable until I got to the footnotes – which are mostly pure commentary – not facts.

      And it’s the kind of commentary that we hear from the “open up now dammit” folks.

      And, no, I’m NOT in the “I favor damaging the economy for as long as I can” – which basically exposes the motives of the “we cannot stay closed” folks.

      Our economy is severely damaged – it’s no-ones fault – it’s just a horrible reality but doing really stupid stuff because we are frustrated is not a good answer and most people, despite the counter rhetoric – about 80% of the population actually does have good sense.

    • I did. See the very first comment.

  6. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    What about reparations to lessen the damage? Smithfield is owned by a company in China.

    Lockdown is over in Warrenton. Stores that were open were slammed. Roads full of cars. Sidewalks full of people. Cars loaded up with teens cruising around town until late last night.

    His Excellency, Ralph Northam, Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, can come up with all kinds of edicts and plans. Virginians are simply going to do what they want to.

  7. I read an interesting article where a Silicon Valley executive predicted the end of open offices. Cubicles making a come-back. Maybe border control should too.

    We need to take small steps towards opening the economy. We can utilize measures being used by those businesses that are open. I’ve gone to the bank. I wear a mask and stand on the lines marked. I hand my papers to the teller and step back. The teller is wearing a mask and gloves. I ask for an email receipt.

    The grocery store and Costco limit the number of people who can be in the store at one time. They have arrows in the aisles, plexiglass shields. I took my car to the dealer for a state inspection and fluid changes. Masks and gloves are used.

    There are a number of other businesses that could open on a limited scale using these measures. There are some where this might not work. Start small and work up based on developments.

    I think masks and social distancing will be part of the process for a reasonably long time.

    • “I’ve gone to the bank. I wear a mask and stand on the lines marked. I hand my papers to the teller and step back, AND PULL OUT MY REVOLVER. The teller is wearing a mask and gloves. I ask for an email receipt, TAKE THE CASH AND RUN.

      Why not? All Virginia’s jails will be closed, all police, judges, and prosecutors in quarantine. Richmond’s Ralph, his plutocrats and kleptocrats running place.

    • The thing is – about 80% of businesses are open and operating. Even restaurants are operating – albeit delivery and pickup – and to be sure – many of them were headed that way before the virus.

      Education is able to continue – not without some changes but again, education has been moving online now for awhile and there is a big irony because the critics have been on public schools now for a while – and now, they got their wish – they can determine what education they want their kids to have – and do it – without near as much “interference from the public schools.

      Try to make a list of the things you MUST DO that you cannot…..

      then make a list of the things you’d really like to do – like a haircut.

      then list all the things you want to do but are not necessities.

      So what is this REALLY about?

      Well, yes, “it’s the economy , stupid” but it sure looks like a lot of the economy is gradually adjusting to the new normal.

      What things are not open that are NECESSARY ? And yet, we fret over the damage to the economy – over what? things that are discretionary.

      Turns out, the part of the economy that really “moves” is the lowest tiers of employment…. the folks who barely make a living and immediately spend most of what they earn – It’s THAT economy that is savaged – and, in turn, the focus of all the “open back up now” cries.

      Make no mistake, I can get food and drugs, and gasoline and home improvement stuff.. I can bank. I can get tires for the car. I can order hair-clippers from Amazon and get internet and TV. My lights are on and my furnace and telephone work…. and I can get about 95% of the groceries I want save the stuff that some idiots are hoarding.

      worrisome quote: ” Senate Majority Whip John Thune (S.D.), the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, said in an interview. He warned that at some point, “we’re going to run out of capacity at the federal level.”


      • LarrytheG,
        What earthly meaning do you think this 80% figure has? A business that is open running with 10% of its normal staff is not the same piece of the economy it was.

        You need to check your privilege. It’s true that we can mostly still consume essential products, if we have the money to pay for them. If that’s all your life contained than I suppose it is no less full than it was.

        Those of us who worked for a living and now can’t will continue to evidence concerns that you cannot or will not understand. Those of us who need more out of the economy than to “order hair-clippers from Amazon and get internet and TV” will continue to be angry about the incompetence that Northam and his administration have shown.

        • Anon – I do NOT diminish the impacts to people who are not working as a result of the virus – but when we characterize the economy as in “collapse” when 80% of it still working is not correct either.

          And again, I simply ask – what is it you cannot do that you must or have to do… ??

          I’m NOT saying the economy is not seriously damaged but I’m asking what parts of it are necessary and what parts are discretionary – and yes… are we saying that the discretionary economy is a significant and important part of the total economy?

          When we say , for instance, that a restaurant is only operating at 10% – that’s not true. SOME restaurants are and others are actually operating at more than 100%. Wanna know how many jobs there are now in the economy for folks who know how to deploy an “online” web site for all manner of services now? How about jobs for distance learning?

          My point? The economy is STILL THERE – but it’s DIFFERENT than it was but commerce is still occurring and wanting to occur.

          ah…but you got on to it when you said this: ” Northam and his administration have shown”

          Can you tell me why this is not just another a right-wing canard ?

          Is Northam more “incompetent” than say Hogan or Cuomo or other Governors?

  8. “Virginia’s approach becomes a model for the rest of the country. It’s task force becomes the de facto leader among its peers.”

    This standard is absolutely key in Virginia in all things. Appearances, Proclamations and Virginia Values, delivered on hot air in the Virginia Way: Richmond’s Ralph Blackface cum Baghdad Bob cum Mussolini inflected through Machiavelli – For the masses, appearances wrapped in nonsense trump all reality from the Piedmont to Tidewater to Dismal Swamps and Capes of Old Dominion.

  9. “The news was good overall on Friday when Governor Northam announced the creation of a COVID-19 task force …”

    Virginians beware:

    In Virginia, a government created “task force” is always a group of Virginia Gentlemen organized into a gang of bandits specially deputized by the Commonwealth’s plutocrats to raid the public wealth and assets wherever same may be found and plundered – its treasury, its lands, it monuments and historic artifacts, its public buildings, facilities, roads, airports, dumps, liquor stores, gambling casinos, public colleges and universities, and all its licenses, its emoluments, its offices and/or titles and/or privileges, of all and sundry sort,

    And further beware, Virginians:

    That those deputized Virginia Gentlemen bandits shall and always will divvy up this public booty among themselves to be possessed and owned, jointly and severally, by those bandits as they in their sole discretion shall determine, in perpetuity.

    See, for example, Dulles Toll Road, Silver Line, Dulles Airport and Million Dollar Bus Stops.

  10. Here is my prediction on what the future holds should the Governor’s recovery plan and his task force template be strictly enforced and adhered to:

    Small business owners and their businesses will be crushed in large numbers, many to never rise again in Virginia.

    Large and mid size commercial (including non profit) operators, particularly those well connected politically will do far, far better in Virginia than smaller businesses.

    The poor will be hammered. So will much of the middle class of all ages (young, middle aged, older). They will also be hammered, particularly those who cannot telecommute. Many of these folks will never recover, and/or gain the purchase to attain the quality of life, health, social well-being and/or financial and social security they would have otherwise gained but for government action.

    Indeed, most all this damage will be government induced, not the result of deaths by virus.

    As to who has best grip on what is going on here, read two old friends often mentioned here earlier.

    WSJ columnist Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. And Standford’s John Ioannidis. To cut through B/S combine wisdom of both in this weekends WSJ.

    As to usefulness of Virginia’s virus testing to date, Jenkins got it about right:
    “It’s the equivalent of counting drunks and people who drive blue Austin-Healeys to estimate the risk of dying in a car accident.”

    As to accountability. Expect the power structure and its MSM allies to work very hard to hide and scapegoat all the damage they’ve done to small business, poor, and middle class, the very group that has done so much to keep America going to date in the crisis. In return they will get the shaft.

  11. I see no evidence that Northams plan is going to play out that different than a lot of other states plans.

    For instance, how many other states have “regional” roll-outs instead of state-wide? any?

    The focus on Northam is more political than anything fundamentally different than say, Maryland or North Carolina or Pennsylvania, etc.

    Not to say they are all alike but I just don’t see anything particularly different in a bad way and I think it incumbent on the critics to show that difference if they are going to hold that view.

    Otherwise, such criticism is to be taken as partisan without real merit.

    I do NOT think Northam is the greatest thing since sliced bread – he’s kind of ordinary – and that’s the real point. Vanilla, not guano except int he eyes of the partisans.

  12. I typically don’t read what you write. correct.

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