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How to Pick the Lockdown’s Low-Hanging Fruit

Stop arguing about barber shops and nail salons and start thinking about mass transit and schools.
May 8, 2020
Featured Image
Light Traffic is seen along 42nd street on March 27, 2020 in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio chose four streets across four boroughs to test whether shutting down streets to vehicular traffic would increase social distancing among pedestrians during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

1. Lockdowns

Sometimes we get into manias that prevent us from seeing things clearly.

My favorite example of this is electric vehicles.

If you’re looking at environmental impacts, what matters isn’t the fuel consumption of the vehicle a person is driving right now, today. What matters is the difference in fuel consumption between what you were driving yesterday and what you’re driving now.

Which is to say that the low-hanging fruit isn’t in moving a driver from a Honda Civic to a hybrid or EV equivalent, where maybe you can cut total emissions by 25 percent. It’s moving a driver from a truck-based SUV platform to a car-based SUV, where you can easily cut emissions by 50 percent.

In other words: You concentrate on banking the easy, big gains first. And only later do you worry about squeezing the gains out at the margins.

As we start to work through how to relax mitigation measures with the coronavirus, we ought to be thinking in exactly those terms.

The whole idea of mitigation is to cut the total number of daily contacts the average person has with other people.

And this presents the exact same situation as the electric car example.

Sure, we could try to squeeze out every last contact by closing hiking trails and public parks. But the smart play is to concentrate on the areas where you can cut the largest percentages of daily contacts. And then work from there.

What does that look like? Start with the two biggies:

  • Public transit
  • Concerts, sporting events, conventions, museums, and other mass gatherings

If you reduce people’s need for mass transit by letting anyone who can work from home do so, that’s going to be a big percentage of contacts we cut out right from the start.

Ditto the luxury mass gatherings. I don’t know how many contacts the average person makes by attending an MLB game, but I’m going to guess it’s a lot.

What I’m getting at is this: When we talk about opening barber shops and nail salons and hiking trails we’re talking about a small number of contacts in a person’s day. And we can mitigate the risk of spread in many of those situations through mask usage.

Our bigger challenge is figuring out what to do with large-contact situations. And not just baseball games, but airports, indoor shopping malls, and—the big one—schools.

I expect the next flashpoint in the coronavirus culture war to come in the beginning of July as people start grappling with what to do about opening schools in August and September.

We should probably start working through how to manage the big-ticket items that are just 16 weeks away instead of fighting pitched battles over the small stuff that’s right in front of us.

2. Not Just New York

My buddies at the New Atlantis have put together another fantastic data set, this one visualizing how COVID-19 has been affecting individual states in terms of death numbers.

Go look at the graphics here. They’re pretty striking.