Too soon? Too late?

On Monday many of Minnesota’s retailers will get to reopen their doors for the first time in weeks. Gov. Tim Walz hasn’t fully reopened the economy — restaurants remain on a take-out basis only; bars, theaters and salons remain shuttered; even the stores that do reopen are to restrict occupancy and take other protective measures.

So Minnesota is not taking anywhere as aggressive an approach as some states. But the governor’s “turning the dial” metaphor is an appropriate description of his appropriate approach to the next step of Minnesota’s battle against the novel coronavirus.

Michael Osterholm — a familiar name in these parts from his role as state epidemiologist during Mankato’s meningitis outbreak 25 years ago — is involved in this medical struggle as well, this time as director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. He made several intriguing points this week in a lengthy Q-and-A published by USA Today, points he has presumably made to the governor, and one of them was this:

“Four weeks ago, we had everybody agreeing that we’re going to reopen (once we) have 14 days of reduced occurrence of illness. Then, when it got another couple of weeks along and that wasn’t happening, we just threw all that out the window without ever saying we did.”

Osterholm is absolutely right on that, nationally and at home. Minnesota is not seeing cases fall off, is not seeing deaths fall off, is not seeing hospitalizations or intensive care commitments fall off. We’re still seeing about two dozen people a day die with COVID-19. The day after Walz announced that he would allow the stay-at-home order to expire Sunday night, the state said it is only meeting one of its reopening criteria.

And yet Osterholm conceded earlier in the Q-and-A: “We can’t lock down for 18 months or more to whatever it might take.” And in another answer: “This shouldn’t be dollars or lives. This should be, how do we integrate both and bring them together?”

Walz’s stated purpose when he first issued the stay-at-home order was to buy time to prepare Minnesota’s health care system for the coming surge. That feared peak has not hit, yet, and the state says it has stockpiled the gear and emergency hospital space it needs for when it does come. In that sense, it was time to ease the restrictions and gradually free up movement.

Minnesotans have put up with weeks of closed stores and limited movement. Patience has worn thin with many, and there are signs that people are beginning to disregard the stay-at-home order. The economic damage done by the shutdown is genuine and perhaps lasting.

But there should be no doubt that even the limited reopening of business will increase transmission of the virus. Walz is trusting Minnesotans to behave sensibly in the coming days and weeks and give him reason to further turn the dial to open. Let’s live up to that trust.

— The Free Press of Mankato, May 17

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