I’m telling myself that there has to be more to this than meets the eye, because what meets the eye is that they’re now actively suppressing advice from scientists on how to reduce the risk of infection as parts of the country reopen for business.
“Confronted with America’s worst public health crisis in generations, President Trump declared himself a wartime president,” said the Times today of Trump’s “back to work” push. “Now he has begun doing what past commanders have done when a war goes badly: Declare victory and go home.” Are the new CDC guidelines part of that? America does have a habit of suppressing information when a war starts going badly.
My proposed compromise between the “reopen now” and “be patient” contingents last night was straightforward. Let’s lift the lockdowns, but let’s also make sure the public has accurate, up-to-date daily information from public health experts about the extent of the threat. People can make their own decisions about whether to start shopping again. We shouldn’t force workers into unemployment by shuttering their businesses and we shouldn’t deceive consumers into believing that conditions are safer than they really are.
One element of providing accurate, up-to-date daily information is … not shelving guidance from the country’s main disease-prevention agency.
The Trump administration has shelved a document created by the nation’s top disease investigators with step-by-step advice to local authorities on how and when to reopen restaurants and other public places during the still-raging coronavirus outbreak.
The 17-page report by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention team, titled “Guidance for Implementing the Opening Up America Again Framework,” was researched and written to help faith leaders, business owners, educators and state and local officials as they begin to reopen.
It was supposed to be published last Friday, but agency scientists were told the guidance “would never see the light of day,” according to a CDC official…
A person close to the White House’s coronavirus task force said the CDC documents were never cleared by CDC leadership for public release. The person said that White House officials have refrained from offering detailed guidance for how specific sectors should reopen because the virus is affecting various parts of the country differently.
Right, the virus is affecting various parts of the country differently, but that didn’t stop Trump and the White House from issuing its own broad national guidelines — which are now being mostly ignored, including by Trump himself — a few weeks ago. The CDC guidelines have leaked and can be read here, which I encourage you to do. They’re specific, and they’re tied to the three “phases” described in Trump’s own guidelines, which should account for any regional difference. There are particular procedures for churches, schools, restaurants, etc, in communities that are still in “phase one” of the epidemic and there are different procedures for communities that are in “phase three.” Regional differences are already priced into the “phases” of the federal scheme. There’s no reason why they should justify keeping the CDC document from the public.
This makes twice in the span of four days that secret information generated by the CDC about the extent of the threat has leaked to the media. It also closely follows an abortive attempt by the White House to wind down the coronavirus task force, which Trump reversed on after a media uproar. The unmistakable impression is that the administration is trying to suppress information about the extent of the risk to the public from reopening soon because it might discourage states from doing so and that opponents inside the administration are trying to get that information to the public anyway. The White House has already taken a beating in the press for ignoring the fact that many states don’t yet qualify to reopen under Trump’s own federal guidelines, so their solution to the political problem posed by the more detailed CDC guidelines seems to be simply to not issue them at all. Let businesses and consumers fly blind in assessing whether a particular retail environment is safe or not.
Which is why I’m telling myself there has to be more to this. Even the Trump White House wouldn’t be so freakishly callous as to suppress public health guidance because people might put their own health above Trump’s electoral interest in seeing an economic revival before November.
Does this explain the White House’s thinking here?
“The CDC, the White House task force and White House principles were in disagreement on how strongly a public health response should still be in place,” said the official.
According to the CDC official, the agency was told by US Department of Labor officials – who are all part of the government process – that under the agency’s proposed guidelines, some of the restrictions that would have to be placed on entities like churches, and businesses were too stringent, and businesses would be left vulnerable to legal liability if a worker contracts or dies from Covid-19 on the job.
“In the absence of law, it’s regulation, and in the absence of regulation, it’s recommendations. They think it’s left too much open to be interpreted by the courts if something happens on the job. It doesn’t matter if OSHA is playing ball or not,” the CDC source said.
Is it a liability thing? I.e. if the CDC issues guidelines, courts will use those guidelines as yardsticks in tort cases to measure whether a business took reasonable precautions against infection or not. Congress could address that problem in the next round of coronavirus relief, though. It’s on Republicans’ radar. A source told WaPo last week that “The big problem with the restaurant section is it could cause many restaurants to go bankrupt” by forcing them to spend money on extra safety measures. Immunizing restaurants from liability if they don’t install those measures would solve that.
But it’s no excuse to suppress the CDC’s belief that restaurants that lack those measures are more dangerous than ones that have them. Once again, we’re perilously close here to the White House trying to keep Americans deliberately ignorant about their personal risk under certain conditions as retail opens back up. If some businesses are going to cut corners on safety, whether because they don’t want to spend the money to provide it or because they can’t afford to, it’s immoral not to let consumers know that their health might be at risk from it.
Another source complained to WaPo that churches don’t like to be told how to operate, specifically, “Churches aren’t going to want to give up hymnals or choirs or normal services.” So the CDC guidelines had to be put in a drawer because some churches … resent having to take basic hygiene precautions during a pandemic?
A source tells Axios that the CDC guidelines aren’t being shelved, just revised to “address concerns that it works for all Americans from rural areas to urban areas.” As I said, they already did that by tying their recommendations to “phases.” The rural/urban emphasis feels like code for encouraging the agency to back off its considered judgment on what constitutes best practices, at least in red states.
One more quote for you. It’s not just Trump who’s decided that he’s effectively done prioritizing public health after eight weeks of an historic global pandemic because it’s time to focus on the economy instead:
On Monday, the same day that Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, announced he was lifting some coronavirus restrictions on businesses, and the day before he met with President Trump on a visit to the state, his administration disbanded a panel of university scientists who had warned that taking the step now would be dangerous…
The model the scientists had developed showed that reopening the state before the end of May would likely result in a spike in coronavirus cases.
“I can say, scientifically, no, it’s not safe to reopen unless you’re planning on, you know, shutting down again after a couple of weeks,” Tim Lant, a mathematical epidemiologist at ASU, told the Republic prior to Ducey’s decision to go against the team’s modeling.
Bad enough to ignore scientific advice, but to dissolve scientific advisory bodies because there’s supposedly no more use for them — when we’ll be living with the epidemic for a year or more? That feels less like suppression than denialism. I think we’re past the stage now where the “reopen now” crowd yells at its critics “How many jobs are you willing to sacrifice?” and the “be patient” crowd yells back “How many lives are you willing to sacrifice?” The new stage is how much scientific information we’re willing to suppress or outright deny in order to mislead people into thinking it’s safe to shop again. How many lies should we tell to get the Dow up?