Tom Clyde: Buckle up, we’re going to green
The Memorial Day weekend was cold and threatening. It was only a week ago, but it felt like an entirely different season from this week’s unseasonal heat. The weather didn’t stop people from getting out. Even though the campgrounds are still closed by snow, the traffic was heavy. Kamas was insanely busy as people headed up into the Uintas for the weekend. Not a mask in sight. It didn’t look like anything was different from last year.
With the exciting move from Orange to Yellow on the Pandemic Panic-O-Meter, it became acceptable to have gatherings of 50 people. Most of my neighbors took that as a requirement. If they only had 40 people in the immediate circle of friends for the weekend, they had to go out on the highway and drag some strangers in to make that 50-person quota. I’m sure nobody coughed or sneezed, so everything is ok.
The news now is that we could be moving from Yellow to Green in a week or so. Green is still something different from “normal.” I’m not sure what color “normal” is, and maybe it doesn’t really matter any more. Maybe at “Green” we get rid of the police tape at the tractor parts store that makes you stand 6 feet back from the counter. That somehow protects everybody, because you can’t spread the virus when shouting back and forth with the clerk. It didn’t feel safe; it felt like I was going to get the wrong part ordered because I couldn’t see the parts diagram on the screen.
So whatever “Green” means, it will be a step up from whatever “Yellow” means, and we all go out and resume some semblance of normal activity. Bring in the tourists and go for it. The hope is that we don’t lay the groundwork for a spike in sickness this fall.
If the goal was to avoid overwhelming the medical system, we accomplished that in most places. New York was a disaster, with the dead stacked in refrigerator trailers, but you almost have to expect that given the density. That New York functions under the best of circumstances is surprising. The number of cases on the Navajo reservation is a surprise. That’s such a world apart from the rest of the country, you would have thought it would be isolated and protected. It seemed like the perfect place to escape it all. If the goal was to eliminate the virus, we’re not even close. We’re only sort of managing it.
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This week the death toll in the US broke 100,000 people. It’s averaged roughly 1,500 a day, about the population of Coalville. Without a treatment or vaccine, there’s little reason to think that will change much. It might slow somewhat, seasonal factors could affect it—though nobody really knows—and it could come roaring back in the fall. Could, might, maybe. Because it’s new, it’s also mostly guesswork.
For a while, some people were disinfecting packages. Amazon deliveries were wiped down with bleach. Then the word came out that it doesn’t really spread much from surfaces, and that level of sanitizing isn’t necessary. Nobody seems to know.
So the calculus seems to be that we can go to the “Green” level of normal, returning to business, and accept the consequences. The risk just gets factored in as part of the new normal. We make that kind of adjustment all the time. I got struck by lightning once, but I still go outside. We have about 38,000 traffic deaths a year. If you were starting from a clean slate, and proposing the private automobile as a transportation system for the first time, saying that it would kill 38,000 people a year would get the whole system rejected. Instead, we try to reduce it, but willingly accept that loss of life in exchange for the convenience of driving our cars.
In the big re-opening, we’ve made the calculation that the necessities of a functioning economy offset the risks of spreading the virus, and the inevitable fatalities that will follow. Three months ago, the idea of risking potentially fatal infection to get a haircut was unthinkable. All of a sudden, like the ever-present risk of a traffic accident, it’s part of the background risk of being alive. So take the sides up and an inch or so off the top.
If the death rate stays at 1,500 a day, it’s the equivalent of eliminating the entire population of Wyoming in a year. That’s huge, especially if you live in Wyoming. But while the search for a vaccine goes on, as a society we have decided to come out of the bunkers and learn to live with the increased risk. And apparently wearing a mask, like wearing a seatbelt, is just too much for some people. Buckle up, it’s going to be a rough ride.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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“God? Bless America,” columnist Teri Orr writes. “And while you’re at it — could you bless this whole interrelated planet?”