America isn't reopening by Easter. But how long should the coronavirus shutdown optimally last?

Peter Weber

There will be a real human cost if the U.S. tries to return to normalcy too soon after this period of coronavirus paralysis — increased deaths, lots more physical pain and suffering, collapsing medical systems. But there are also very steep social and economic costs to locking down much of the country, and those will mount the longer the shutdowns continue.

President Trump — also fretting over the personal political price of the tanking economy, as CBS News reports below — is pushing for the country to start jumping from isolation to work by Easter, April 12. On Thursday, he proposed reopening in phases.

Trump can't compel states and cities to reopen before they are ready. But governors and mayors will have to make cost-benefit decisions about when to start lifting restrictions. Nicholas Kristof and Stuart Thompson at The New York Times worked with epidemiologists to create an interactive model demonstrating "why quickly returning to normal could be a historic mistake that would lead to an explosion of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths."

With the 14 day shutdown Trump is promoting, the model predicts 126.5 million Americans infected with the coronavirus by late October and 1.3 million deaths; after 56 days, 19.1 million Americans would contract the virus and 115,700 would die. You can fiddle with the length and severity of social distancing, plus other factors.



The epidemiologists Kristof and Thompson spoke with suggested scenarios in which certain parts of the U.S. opened first or regions shifted between hospital-saving periods of extreme social distancing and virus-feeding normalcy "breaks." Microsoft founder Bill Gates dismissed an incremental, middle-ground approach on CNN Thursday night. "The sooner we take this medicine, which is tough medicine, the sooner we'll be out of it and not have to go back into it again," he told Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta. And with cases still rising across the U.S., "the light is not at the end of the tunnel in terms of a mid-April reopening."

"By summer, I think the rich countries that have been competently led on this will not have to go back into shutdown," Gates said. "And from the disease point of view, they'll avoid very large numbers of deaths." It's not clear he included the U.S. in that category.

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