The scene from Wisconsin provided a perfect illustration of the careful balancing act faced by elected officials as states deal with how to reopen businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just hours after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ virus mitigation orders this past week, Wisconsinites poured and packed into bars across the state.
If anyone needs a visualization of public health officials’ greatest nightmares during a pandemic, check out the Wednesday night photos from Wisconsin bars: dozens of people packed into small, indoor spaces.
That sound you just heard was your local public health officials shuddering.
What happened in Wisconsin also shows the challenge facing elected officials everywhere as they try to balance reopening businesses and protecting public health.
Mitigation strategies like closing schools and businesses were put in place to slow the spread of a virus for which there is no vaccine. So social distancing is the best tool in the public health toolbox for how to slow the spread and prevent as many virus-related deaths as possible.
But many elected officials, including Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, have noted that such extreme mitigation strategies are not without their own residual effects. Unemployment numbers are breaking records and the economy is hurting. And there are concerns that domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness could rise while people are being asked to stay at home for extended periods of time.
As businesses in states like Iowa begin to reopen, those businesses and the individuals who begin to congregate in public become even more responsible for protecting the public health.
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The goal and the hope in places where businesses are reopening is that individuals will continue to practice safe social distancing and hygiene precautions while going to restaurants, salons and retail stores. That way the economy can begin to recover and the virus can be managed.
What happened in Wisconsin shows how quickly that strategy can go wrong.
Reynolds has consistently said she has faith in Iowans and Iowa businesses, that she believes they will continue to do the right thing. She urges all Iowans and businesses to continue practicing safe social distancing and says, from what she has observed, they have.
And to be clear, what happened in Wisconsin does not necessarily portend what will happen in Iowa. The biggest issue in Wisconsin was once the state Supreme Court struck down the governor’s orders, there was no statewide backup plan. So there suddenly were no statewide mitigation orders in place. A few city and county governments have since put orders in place.
In Iowa, even as more businesses are allowed to reopen, social distancing measures are being required. And bars remain closed in Iowa, except for those that prepare and serve food.
So there is not currently a threat that Iowans are going to suddenly rush out to the bars and cram into packed, close quarters.
But the events of this past week in Wisconsin show why good and clear public policy is critically important during a pandemic. And why smart public behavior is just as critical while more and more restrictions continue to be relaxed.
It also shows the tightrope elected officials are walking, and what can happen if there is no safety net underneath.
Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.
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