New Lockdowns Are Threatened in Virus-Stricken U.S. States
A protective mask hangs from a plant in New York, U.S. (Photographer: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg)

New Lockdowns Are Threatened in Virus-Stricken U.S. States

It’s the ultimate weapon of pandemic response: the stay-home order that shuts down businesses and isolates individuals.

On Thursday, public officials across the U.S. warned they will wield it again if people don’t immediately act to halt the resurgent coronavirus.

The mayors of Houston, Los Angeles and Miami have floated the prospect, as has a top adviser to the governor of Texas. Millions of Americans could face a second round of lockdowns even as the economy struggles to recover from the first.

New Lockdowns Are Threatened in Virus-Stricken U.S. States

Those decisions would be excruciating after the economic devastation wrought by the first round of orders this spring, but they are getting nearer. Case numbers are stubbornly climbing in all but six states, according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University. On Thursday, Texas posted its worst day of fatalities, 129, and recorded more than 10,000 new cases for a third-straight day. Florida posted a record 156 new deaths.

In the absence of a national strategy, state and local officials keep pushing familiar -- and thus far ineffective -- preventive measures, but many said they are running out of soft options. They raise the prospect of stringent lockdowns to encourage voluntary virtue.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis on Thursday announced a statewide mask order, and said further measures would be unpalatable.

“There’s not a resident of Colorado and there’s not an elected official in Colorado that doesn’t want to do everything they can to avoid having to ever stay at home again for a long period of time,” Polis said.

But a document prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force identified 18 states in the “red zone” of fast-rising virus cases, the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news organization, reported Thursday. Such states, according to the document, should consider mask requirements, closing bars and gyms and limiting social gatherings.

Deaths Rising

With daily case counts now far beyond the first round of infections this spring and deaths rising again after months of decline, officials in some states and cities have already paused reopening efforts, or started rolling them back.

Even in states such as Illinois, which has among the country’s lowest positivity rates, Governor J.B. Pritzker has warned that more restrictions could be on the way if socializing in large groups and avoiding masks leads to a rebound in case counts. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said she does not want to go backward but will if needed.

“Some of you have joked that I am like the mom who will turn the car around when you are acting up,” Lightfoot said during a Wednesday news conference. “No friends, it’s actually worse. I won’t just turn the car around. I am going to shut it off. I am going to kick you out, and I am going to make you walk home.”

New Lockdowns Are Threatened in Virus-Stricken U.S. States

In Florida, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said “everything is on the table,” but is waiting to see if recently implemented measures curb infections. He has closed indoor dining, movie theaters and casinos and added a 10 p.m. curfew. City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez -- whose jurisdiction accounts for about 470,000 residents in the county of about 2.7 million -- said Thursday he wanted to prepare business leaders for a possible return to a lockdown like the one in March and April that closed nonessential businesses.

“In the next few weeks, if something is not done to dramatically alter our course, we could be in a more dire situation,” Suarez said.

Florida’s emergency operations center -- a key hub for its Covid-19 response -- temporarily closed Thursday after several employees tested positive, the latest sign of just how hard it has been to contain the virus.

Texas Reset

In Texas, where the virus threatens to overwhelm hospitals and morgues, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told CNN that his city needs a collective effort, “maybe a two week stay-home, work-safe order reset to cool things off and then gradually move forward again.”

And one of Governor Greg Abbott’s top medical advisers this week told the Houston Chronicle that the outbreak is getting bad enough to warrant lockdowns in some locations.

“It’s clear that the state has not been on a sustainable course, and it’s worth considering a regional approach,” said Mark McClellan, a physician, economist and former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. “It’s so hard to stay ahead of the pandemic when it’s in a growth phase.”

Abbott previously had blocked local governments from taking aggressive action to stem the pandemic, but on Thursday he pleaded with residents to wear face masks. “These is no need for a lockdown if everyone will adopt this best practice,” he said.

Elsewhere, fights continue over the last round of restrictions.

In Kentucky, the Republican attorney general on Thursday asked a state court to block a mask-wearing order from the Democratic governor. He also is trying to block social-distancing restrictions and business-occupancy limits. And in Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp this week ordered the suspension of local mask requirements, saying municipal officials can’t impose stricter measures than his own.

‘Slow-Turning Supertanker’

Across the country, in Los Angeles, lockdowns may not be needed immediately, said Robert Kim-Farley, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California at Los Angeles. He said the county could wait until early August to decide. By then, he expects the effects of pull-backs -- including the recent closure of bars and indoor dining -- will decrease hospitalizations.

“It’s like a slow-turning supertanker,” he said. “You turn things on, and it take a few weeks before you see the results. Then you try to correct those results, but it takes another two to three weeks to see the results of that correction.”

Such corrections keep coming. Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vazquez on Thursday closed for a second time the island’s bars, movie theaters and casinos, even as she acknowledged the economic pain her orders would inflict.

Earlier in the pandemic, Vazquez implemented some of the U.S.’s most drastic measures to curb the virus, and she had just begun to officially welcome tourists back this week. But cases and hospitalizations have spiked, prompting renewed restrictions.

“These measures are very difficult for us to take because we know there is a part of the economy that has been hurt and will be hurt,” she said. “But as I’ve said before, the most important thing is everyone’s life and the safety of our people.”

Officials still face resistance from people who consider masks an overreaction, or an infringement of their rights, as well as from young residents convinced the virus won’t seriously hurt them if they catch it. And they acknowledge that many Americans have grown weary of fighting the pandemic. Now, they may be forced to fight.

“It felt like we were maybe over half of the way there. I know we felt like we somehow had eradicated the danger of Covid-19,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said this week. He has explicitly warned of another stay-home order if cases overwhelm local hospitals. “We did the right thing before, and now we need to do the right thing again.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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