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.