This is where the U.S. finds itself right now. Most of us are still making compromises in daily life, severely limiting our social interactions. At the same time, many businesses are struggling, in part because they are only partly open. Limitations on the number of people who can enter a store or sit down at a restaurant allow for businesses to continue operating, but with less revenue. Yet, as they are open, governments justify easing up on safety nets meant to help them get through the pandemic. Consumers are still going out less and spending less than usual, and unemployment remains higher now than at any point since 2011.
But despite all these sacrifices, the U.S. also has nearly 40,000 new coronavirus cases a day, far more than many other industrialized countries. The virus continues spreading so widely and insidiously that some hot spots are impossible to discern while they can still be contained. A preliminary analysis of one August biker rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, for example, suggested that the gathering may have led to some 266,000 infections and at least $12 billion in health costs. Given limited data and testing, it’s difficult to know precisely. In much of the country, contact tracing is essentially used to construct maps after an outbreak. It is a palliative measure rather than a preventive strategy.
In an attempt to end the limbo, some experts have proposed that a “second shutdown”—for part or even all of the United States—could save money and lives. Though far from the only way forward, this would mean reattempting what we didn’t manage to do in the spring: Lockdowns that are precisely implemented and coordinated, in which nonessential businesses are closed and people are ordered to shelter in place. Instead, we had a patchwork of shutdowns determined by cities and states as they saw fit (or didn’t). A “second shutdown” would not mean that the entire country is under the same directives, but it would mean that everyone is operating from the same playbook.
As case counts once again creep up, a “second shutdown” might be the pandemic equivalent of calling tech support and describing an elaborate problem with your computer only to hear in response: Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on again? The goal would be to essentially wipe the slate (nearly) clean. Hypothetically, if everyone were truly, absolutely sheltered in place for several weeks, the case count would drop to zero. The closest real-world example would be China, or to a lesser extent, places like Germany, where shutdowns have led to major drops in caseloads.
The shutdown would end when we are able to implement widespread testing and tracing to contain cases before they turn into outbreaks. The value of such a measure is entirely contingent on the quality of the plan for how to emerge from it. The plan cannot be to hope that that virus goes away and then to simply go back to what we were doing before.