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Opinion: Recommendations for recovering from the coronavirus crisis

Kay C. James

The debate over when to reopen American communities after the coronavirus outbreak is often cast as an either-or: Either you care about human lives and support staying closed indefinitely, or you put money before lives and advocate reopening immediately. 

That’s forcing a false choice, though. We don’t have to choose between lives and livelihoods. In fact, the two are inextricably bound: A nation decimated by COVID-19 cannot have a functioning economy, and a catastrophic loss of jobs wreaks horrific damage on both mental and physical health. 

That’s why we have to reopen our communities, get people back to work, and return to some semblance of normal, but only when it’s safe enough to do so and people aren’t unnecessarily put at risk. 

The question is how. The National Coronavirus Recovery Commission, which I chair, recently released its first set of recommendations to help combat both the health and economic effects of COVID-19. Comprised of 17 experts in health care, business, government, education, disaster relief and economics, the commission is advancing a holistic approach. 

In this March 18, 2020, file photo, the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol are seen in Washington, at sunrise.

The first thing to understand is there is no single national solution. What works in Wyoming won’t be as relevant in Manhattan. State leaders, more so than the federal government, must drive the decision-making. The role of the federal government should be to aid that recovery with good data on outbreak patterns and potential treatments, with funding to help businesses and employees weather the storm, and with the elimination of regulations that needlessly hamper people’s ability to work, organizations’ ability to provide aid and assistance, and scientists’ ability to find a cure. 

Stay-at-home orders should be used on a county-by-county or ZIP code-level basis and only where there is an outbreak or an indication that one is imminent. Otherwise, such orders needlessly lead to more job losses and severe financial hardship without actually doing much to mitigate the spread of the virus. That means governors — working in concert with city and county governments, businesses, churches, charities, and community organizations, and with data provided by the Centers for Disease Control — should begin reopening certain low-risk areas of their states as soon as possible. 

The National Coronavirus Recovery Commission has introduced five key steps for recovery and is developing detailed recommendations for each step:

►Return to a more normal level of business activity  at the regional level based on data as to outbreak levels, etc. This would be done only after stabilizing the health care system and while continuing to follow CDC guidelines for social distancing, mask-wearing, etc. 

► Slow the spread of COVID-19 while expanding testing. Increase testing for COVID-19 and immunity. Make resources available to regional public health departments to expand testing, reporting, and contact tracing of those possibly in contact with confirmed COVID-19 cases.  

► Continue to build the science.  Increase the availability of new diagnostic tests while supporting the acceleration and introduction of proven therapeutics and vaccines. 

► Establish U.S. leadership in leading the free world  in economic recovery. When safe to do so, implement measures to reestablish international travel while limiting the threat of reinfection. Partner with key allies on reopening trade.

► Reduce future risks of pandemics. Invest in national and state stockpiles of medicines, medical equipment, and other essentials; decrease dependence on other countries for certain critical supplies; and develop strategies to quickly ramp up the manufacture of essential items to meet increased demand during crises. The United States should also invest in an international bio-surveillance network with other nations to detect and contain future emerging infectious diseases. 

It won’t be easy, but Americans have always risen to a challenge. We’ve faced wars, a depression, and pandemics throughout our history and we’ve always come out stronger. There’s no reason we can’t do it again. It’s time to get started. 

Kay C. James, president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), is chairman of the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission.