Harm reduction was initially developed as a public health approach to reduce the negative consequences of drug use. It recognizes that while stopping drug use is the desired outcome, many people won’t be able to do that. For those individuals, needle-exchange programs can reduce their risk of acquiring HIV and hepatitis and transmitting these infections to others. Such programs do not promote or condone drug use, as some critics contend. Rather, they face the reality that if a behavior with harmful consequences is going to happen regardless, steps should be taken to reduce the risk for both individuals and others around them. Think, too, of safe-sex campaigns, or motorcycle helmet laws.
And this seems to me where we are with covid-19: We’re no longer trying to eliminate the virus. Instead, we are accepting that Americans will have to live with it.
If that’s the case, then our efforts should pivot from justifying why reopening is a good idea to figuring out how best to reduce the harm it is certain to cause. If employees have to go to work, let’s at least come up with evidence-based practices that help them do so more safely. Should workplaces all get regular deep cleaning, close off any communal areas and meet new standards for ventilation? Can employees be mandated to wear masks, work six feet apart and keep a contact diary?