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Opinion: Let each state chart its own course on reopening

Kent D. MacDonald and Timothy G. Nash

While our country navigates one of the world’s greatest crises, we are bound equally by fear, frustration and a troubling sense of fate.

During the American trauma and political turmoil of 1776, American patriot Thomas Paine wrote: “These are the times that try [human’s] souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but those that stand by it now, deserve the love and thanks of men and women alike.”

Today, summer soldiers and sunshine patriots are nowhere to be found. Americans are uniting to combat COVID-19, but it’s not been easy.

Since the first U.S. COVID-19-related death, we’ve escalated to 1.4 million cases and over 82,000 deaths. Roughly one-third of deaths occurred in 12 of our 3,143 U.S. counties. Over 80% of Michigan cases and deaths fall within Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Nationally, we face roughly 23,000 new cases and 1,500 deaths daily, but there are signs of hope. Social distancing has slowed the spread. The COVID-19 U.S. mortality rate is flattening. These positive signs are timely, because philosophical divides are emerging in terms of next steps.

Some states, like Michigan, have extended mitigation to slow the transmission rate.  While others believe the economic cost is too great; based on predictions of GDP loss of $2.5 trillion by the end of June, from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

People wearing a face masks for protection against COVID-19 pass a business that has reopened in San Antonio, Thursday, May 14, 2020.

In addition, current federal bailout and stimulus packages now exceed more than $3 trillion. Potential bailouts of state governments for tax revenue shortfalls add another $1 trillion, while a national highway and infrastructure bill could add $1 trillion. Collectively, these programs would increase our national debt to above $30 trillion (nearly 140% of U.S. GDP) by the end of 2021. Today our total national debt stands at 106% of U.S. GDP. 

Human costs also are beginning to mount. U.S. suicide rates are at a 30-year high. Many cities report double-digit increases in domestic violence and child abuse. We believe social and economic outcomes demand serious consideration for relaxing our state and regional quarantines.

A single solution by country or state is not the answer. We believe decisions to reopen states must be driven by open, logical, fact-based debates. Leaders must have a bias for action, combined with common sense.

Thinking should be guided by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. In the 1932 case New York State Ice Company vs Liebmann, Justice Brandeis coined the phrase, ‘Our Fifty Laboratories of Democracy’ to describe how a state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and undertake novel social and economic experiments that may differ from one state to the next. 

This concept promotes a system of state autonomy, where state and local laws and policies are debated, created and tested to serve the context of local conditions. Results are analyzed and debated with the citizenry choosing how they act and where they choose to live or locate their businesses.

To move forward, we must all become well-informed citizens. We must proceed rationally, consider all variables—listen, observe, and act responsibly. Using this independent approach the U.S. economy will reopen soon, driven by facts, data, logic and prudent countermeasures to balance multiple risks simultaneously.

We firmly believe tailored solutions are the best course of action.

Let’s move the modern day summer soldiers and sunshine patriots to the side and allow our 50 laboratories of democracy to move us forward while preserving both our health and economy.

Dr. Kent D. MacDonald is president of Northwood University and Dr. Timothy G. Nash is director of the McNair Center at Northwood University.