After Asking Americans to Sacrifice in Shutdown, Leaders Failed to Control Virus

Sabrina Tavernise, Frances Robles and Louis Keene
Cars wait in line at a food bank in San Antonio, Texas, May 15, 2020. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — More than four months into fighting the coronavirus in the United States, the shared sacrifice of millions of Americans suspending their lives — with jobs lost, businesses shuttered, daily routines upended — has not been enough to beat back a virus whose staying power around the world is only still being grasped.

The number of new U.S. cases this last week surged dangerously high, to levels not ever seen in the course of the pandemic, especially in states that had rushed to reopen their economies. The result has been a realization for many Americans that however much they have yearned for a return to normalcy, their leaders have failed to control the coronavirus pandemic. And there is little clarity on what comes next.

“There has to be a clear coherent sustained communication, and that has absolutely not happened,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. “We’ve had just the opposite and now it’s hard to unring a whole series of bells.”

There was “real hubris” on the part of public health officials at the very start, Schaffner said, that the United States could lock down and contain the virus as China had. That futile hope helped create an unrealistic expectation that the shutdown, while intense, would not be for long, and that when it was lifted life would return to normal.

That expectation was reinforced by President Donald Trump, who has downplayed the severity of the crisis, refused to wear a mask and began calling for states to open even as the virus was surging. A lack of federal leadership also meant that states lacked a unified approach.

With no clear message from the top, states went their own ways. A number of them failed to use the shutdown to fully prepare to reopen in a careful manner. As Americans bought precious time trying to keep the virus at bay, experts advised that states urgently needed to establish a robust system for tracking and containing any new cases — through testing, monitoring and contact tracing. Without this, the pandemic would simply come roaring back.

Testing and contact tracing efforts were ramped up, but not enough in some places. Even states that did embark on ambitious plans to do contact tracing struggled. Health officials in Massachusetts, which has one of the country’s most established tracing programs, said in May that only about 60% of infected patients were picking up the phone.

Just as the country needed to stay shut down longer, many states — mostly with Republican governors — took their foot off the brake, and Trump cheered them on.

In early May, when more than half of U.S. states had begun reopening parts of their economies, most failed to meet the nonbinding criteria recommended by the Trump administration itself to resume business and social activities.

The White House’s nonbinding guidelines suggested that states should have a “downward trajectory” of either documented coronavirus cases or of the percentage of positive tests.

Yet most states that were reopening failed to adhere to even these ill-defined recommendations. They had case counts that were trending upward, positive test results that were rising, or both, raising concerns among public health experts.

The virus has proved formidable around the world, resisting global efforts to find a treatment, refusing to fade in summer weather and unrelenting in exploiting weaknesses in government responses, even in countries whose responses to the virus have been considered a success — and where the threat seemed tamed.

Germany, whose handling of the virus was considered a success, had to reimpose lockdowns on two counties where there was a spike of cases in slaughterhouses and low-income housing blocks. Singapore experienced a second wave of infections in April.

And in China, which adopted some of the world’s strictest measures to contain the virus, Beijing suffered this month a new surge of cases, causing flights to be canceled and schools to be closed.

Much of the challenge stems from major gaps in knowledge about how the virus works. In addition to chasing a vaccine, scientists around the world are still trying to unravel important mysteries, including how long immunity lasts after infection and why some people get so much sicker than others.

For Americans, a troubling new reality set in this week: Even as some parts of the country, like New York, were finally getting the virus under control, it was surging anew in others, like a terrifying sequel, threatening lives and livelihoods.

New virus cases were on the rise in 29 states Friday as the outlook worsened across much of the nation’s South and West.

On Saturday, Florida reported more than 9,500 new coronavirus cases, beating its record for the second consecutive day. At least 980 new cases were added in Nevada, more than double the state’s previous daily high. And in South Carolina, officials announced more than 1,600 new cases, nearly 300 more than the previous record, set a day before.

In Florida and Texas, governors closed bars Friday, as they scrambled to control what appeared to be a brewing public health catastrophe. All this is leaving people with a strange sense of déjà vu and a bitterness at public officials for what felt like a fumbling of people’s sacrifices.

“Are we doing a full circle? Yes,” said Judy Ray, 57, a cosmetologist and hairdresser in Florida who was laid off from her job at a barbershop at Walt Disney World Resort in March.

“Everyone is passing the buck,” she said of political leaders in Florida. “You don’t see the chain of command actually working.”

Ray, a Disney employee for 13 years, said she had not received any unemployment benefits — federal or state, in the 10 weeks she has been off. She has called the unemployment office hundreds of times since March, including this week, when she said she broke down into tears of frustration after being told her case was still pending. She has sliced $200 out of her monthly budget and has been paying her mortgage from her savings.

“I don’t think they care about what we’ve had to go through,” Ray said of state authorities. “It means that we are the ones that hurt. You know?”

Many Americans started in the pandemic with a strong feeling of solidarity, not unlike the days after 9/11. They closed their businesses, stayed inside, made masks and wiped down their groceries. In a country often riven by politics, polls showed broad agreement that shutting down was the right thing to do.

But months of mixed messages have left many exhausted and wondering how much of what they did was worth it.

Tony Jacobs, owner and proprietor of Sideshow Books, a used book store in Los Angeles, said in the early weeks of the lockdown he had taken to delivering books by bike around the neighborhood in a mask and gloves.

“I thought it would be an effective way to stop the virus — if we just locked down for two or three weeks, we could knock it out of LA,” he said. “I felt that was the civic duty, and that everybody was going to be compensated for doing the civic duty.”

The plight of California has served as a warning that even states that were more aggressive in their strategies have not been entirely successful.

California, which had the first stay-at-home order in the United States this spring, allowed businesses to reopen weeks ago as the state felt it had the virus under control. That seems to be changing: California reported its highest single-day total this week and announced more than 5,600 new cases Friday.

The rise comes despite the fact that the state has hired and trained thousands of contact tracers. It has also dramatically ramped up testing. And the millions of face masks that were promised early on have begun to finally materialize.

Jacobs felt the lockdown had been squandered and his business hung out to dry. As for whether Jacobs’ sacrifices were worth it, he said, “Oh God, no.”

In recent weeks, some conservatives said they had an additional concern: After weeks of being told that going to church, attending funerals, and participating in protests was a willful, careless spurning of science, political leaders and some public health officials condoned — and even joined — the crowds protesting the killing of George Floyd.

“It’s just a real social whiplash,” said Philip Campbell, vice president of a pest control company in Central Michigan, who took part in the first protests against the lockdown in Lansing in April from the cab of his truck. “Two weeks ago you can’t go out because you are going to kill grandma. Now it’s ‘you have an obligation to go out.’ It leaves me feeling that the science and the public health authorities have been politicized.”

Americans’ trust in the federal government has been falling for decades, but the recent months of muddied messaging have left many even more skeptical of public officials.

“I’m not angry, I’m disappointed, disappointed in the government, very much so,” said Gail Creary, who owns Humble Care, an assisted living facility in south Miami-Dade County, Florida. She and her sister take care of six older adults in a three-bedroom house in the suburbs. “I think they should really have taken better control of this.”

She laments that there isn’t more widespread testing and contact tracing. She wonders why other countries have done a better job than the United States has. Her home country of Jamaica did better, she said.

“We have a governor who can’t even say, ‘Hey we’re making wearing a mask mandatory,’ ” she said.

“What did America do with that time?”

Schaffner offered a bleak prognosis for the country’s next chapter with the virus. He said he did not expect the country to return to a full lockdown, so in order to contain the infection people would have to begin to change behaviors in ways that were uncomfortable, unfamiliar — wearing masks, not gathering in large groups indoors, staying 6 feet apart.

“The only alternative until we have a vaccine is all of these behavioral interventions that we know work,” he said. But, he added, “The governors are all on different pages. It is no wonder that the average person is confused.”

Silvana Salcido Esparza, 59, chef and owner of Barrio Café in Phoenix, said a group of restaurant owners asked the governor to keep the state closed for longer, but it opened anyway — as did most restaurants. Now when she drives by, she sees “they are packed, there’s no social distancing inside.”

She said she spent her retirement money trying to keep her business afloat, but in April, had to close her newest restaurant, Barrio Café Gran Reserva.

“I had to sacrifice it,” she said, noting ruefully that it had been nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award. “I’m almost 60. I was going to retire in two years. That’s not going to happen now.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company