With the state having tested about one in 10 Rhode Islanders for COVID-19, the pace of the increase in positive results continues to slow. That is among the multiple positive signs in the latest data release. The infection rate of the disease over a 14-day time span is down to 0.36, with 1.00 as the pivot point between expansion and retreat.
As the following chart shows, the number of hospitalizations increased by one. Remember that this number is, for some reason, two days behind the others, so that is the count for Tuesday. Given the typical progression of the disease, that is likely too early for the slight increase to be a reflection of the mildly more loose rules imposed by the governor. However, if we keep in mind that the state changed its hospitalization numbers to reflect all people testing positive for the virus no matter the reason they are in the hospital, the increase could indicate that people returning to hospitals for other procedures simply tested positive, whether they had symptoms or not.
By way of a reminder, the dashed blue line is my original projection, and the dashed red line was the last projection before the state stopped trying to figure out who was actually in the hospital because of COVID-19. (See here for my original methodology and here for a subsequent modification I made.)
In political disputes — with truth too often proving a weak defense against the quest for power — we frequently see the strategy of attacking the legitimacy of an action. This person or group is only acting out of self interest. That other person or group is interfering with decisions that aren’t theirs to make. And so on.
Thus, we get the common sneer from Rhode Island insiders and progressives that anybody with a different view who has ever worked with any national group on any issue is really like an interloper trying to impose some foreign idea. For example, they’ll dismiss the long local history of Mike Stenhouse and his family, saying the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity is just some “Koch funded” group. (It’s not.)
Of course, it’s impossible to miss the reality that whether something matters seems to depend entirely on whether it serves the insiders and the progressives. A TV station can be owned by an out-of-state corporation, but it’s only a problem if making it a problem helps the local bullies to shove out ideas they don’t like. Out-of-state funding can be pure — even something to tout — as long as it’s from progressive sources.
It is perfectly copacetic, then, for the scowling leaders of the National Education Association of Rhode Island, Executive Director Robert Walsh and President Larry Purtill, to pledge in an online video that their organization will descend upon the Town of Tiverton this summer and autumn in order to affect the local election of our school committee members. Is an election a debate among local electors as to the best way their views can be represented within their town government? Not if the Pooh Bahs of the NEA have anything to say about it.
Nope. They want ultimate control of both sides of the negotiating table. And it isn’t enough for them to make their case on behalf of their local champion and let a court decide who has the better case. They want it all, mostly to send a message to any locals in Tiverton or elsewhere who might attempt to stand up to them again.
Just so, when the union stages a PR event to offer drive-by encouragement of Mullen at her home, the local paper presents it as her having been “showered with support.” Anybody who has witnessed labor unions busing in supporters from far away in order to fill a room will spot this line in the article: “More than 100 people had signed up to take part in the rally, one from as far away as New York, said Stephanie Mandeville, communications director for the National Educators Association, Rhode Island.”
When a special interest has this much money and power and a taxpayer-funded infrastructure to maintain the muscle for a nonstop political campaign, how can the people of any town really have their own voices represented?
Maybe the most-notable thing about today’s COVID-19 data release for Rhode Island was the big increase in the number of tests conducted. Out of 3,679 tests (up from 2,683 the day before) 181 were positive, for a positive rate of 5%. If we’re going to see an increase from the slight reopening of Governor Raimondo’s Phase One, it should begin in the next few days… although the amount of loosening was so minimal, some skepticism that we’ll see an increase is justified.
Another interesting angle that has been in the news, lately, has been the differences in percentage positive tests in urban community clinics:
As statewide testing numbers dip — only 8% of the test results reported Tuesday from all sites were positive, according to R.I. Health Department data — Gov. Gina Raimondo has sounded increasingly optimistic about her plans to cautiously reopen the state in phases. But the urban neighborhood testing sites, which serve lower-income and higher-risk patients, are seeing positive results that are more than double or triple the statewide percentage.
One big factor is (as readers of this site will know) population density:
The Blackstone Valley Community Health Center has tested nearly 1,000 patients in Central Falls, Pawtucket and Cumberland in the past six weeks, with 24% testing positive, double the statewide rate.
“It is safe to state that the positivity rate is always positively correlated with population density,” said Ray Lavoie, the executive director. “Central Falls and Pawtucket, as two of the most densely populated cities in Rhode Island, are proof of this.”
When I asked on Twitter about any differences in testing standards, Common Cause’s John Marion told me that the urban community clinics are more likely to have professionals doing the tests, compared with other sites where, he says, sometimes parents are being permitted to stick the swabs into their own children’s noses. Understandably, they may tend not to shove them deep enough.
In response to one of my earlier Games with Models posts, one person on Twitter criticized me as follows:
Minimize the threat all you want so you can go out to eat. The fact is in the poorest communities in the state the numbers are skyrocketing
This perspective offers an opportunity to think about how we should be responding to the threat of the virus. If it’s true that the numbers have been skyrocketing in poor areas under our shut-down regime, then that’s evidence that our approach has been incorrect, or at least insufficient — that it hasn’t been working.
Of course, we could put the screws to our economy even more, but that would risk losing whatever willingness currently have to comply. An alternate view would be that it makes no sense to shut down everybody for problem affecting people in a limited area. Consider this: If the numbers in urban areas are disproportionately high, that means that everywhere else, they have to be even lower.
Closing down the economy hurts everybody. If a family has some members who can’t work, it is more important for the others to work. The last thing they should do is not to work as a statement of solidarity. That’s how we ought to look at our economy statewide and nationally. Protect the vulnerable. Place restrictions where they’re actually needed. And give everybody maximal freedom to assess their own situations and make their own judgments. At the same time, figuring out some way to help those who do have to limit their activities would be reasonable.
In the meantime, the numbers continue to improve. A small uptick in the number of Rhode Islanders hospitalized with COVID-19 cannot yet be called a trend, and it resulted mainly from a large downward revision of yesterday’s number.
Projections versus actuals (date reported):
- Projection for 5/14: 11,972
- Actual for 5/14: 12,016
- Projection for 5/15: 12,140
- Projection for 5/14: 251
- Actual for 5/14: 271
- Projection for 5/15: 255
- Projection for 5/14: 467
- Actual for 5/14: 468
- Projection for 5/15: 473
Not to pick on Mike Stanton, whose tweet about churches’ being dangerous I addressed yesterday, but another recent tweet of his is worth review for a related lesson. The author, UConn journalism professor, and former Providence Journal reporter took the opportunity of Sam Howard’s criticism of me to tweet:
Kudos to @SamGHoward for documenting a problem that scientists refer to as “armchair epidemiology” – idealogues using half-baked math to undermine science in pursuit of their own political agenda.
In subsequent exchanges, it seemed clear that Stanton hadn’t read my original post, Howard’s response, or my response to him. If that’s accurate, then the influential journalist had seen the progressive’s tweet, made assumptions as to the subject matter, and then made the further assumptions that I had engaged in “half-baked math” and that Howard had successfully made his case about it.
This is one of the many tentacles by which an ideologically driven insider class constricts to squeeze out competing factions and their competing ideas. Howard was able to decline to respond to my answer to him because he knows he won’t be called on it. He knows any esteemed journalist who catches wind of the exchange will side with him and never acknowledge that the conservative might have made the stronger case.
The Providence Journal provided another excellent example yesterday, with its story on the legal brief that I mentioned earlier today. Three respected lawyers, including a former state supreme court justice and a former president of the state bar association, released an analysis suggesting that the governor of the state is exceeding her powers in ways that violate the rights of Rhode Islanders, and the Providence Journal gave it this headline:
R.I. conservative group, with ex-Supreme Court justice’s memo in hand, may sue over coronavirus shutdown
Headline writing 101 suggests that you put the subject of your story first and avoid complex, convoluted sentence structures. To the writer of this headline, all other aspects of the story are subordinate to his or her belief that the real substance is a “conservative group” whining. The complex, convoluted language is an attempt to twist what he or she knows should be the actual headline to put a thumb on the scale and influence how readers will approach the details. Of course, many/most readers will take the headline as the summary and move on, believing they know something factual.
(As a side note, I had to laugh upon reading Editor & Publisher’s headline about the Providence Journal’s decision to end editorial essays: “In Rhode Island, the State’s Largest Daily No Longer Has Any Opinions of Its Own.” That’s obviously not true. The paper is just no longer accurately labeling any of its opinions as such.)
This experience carries over to other areas than news reporting. When it comes to our legal system — whether the courts themselves or the quasi-judicial rulings of bodies like the Ethics Commission or the Attorney General’s office for open meetings and access to public records — underlying assumptions apply about who is right or wrong and what the heart of the issue is. It doesn’t even have to be conscious, having more to do with how people come to understand a question and determine what seems reasonable.
From there, even people who might agree with the outside groups’ ideas, or at least find their arguments compelling, will shy away from public support or agreement. They don’t want to become subject to the same unfair bias; they want the assumption of being taken seriously.
The undulation of these tentacles is very visible on social media, where (like Howard) progressives will criticize others for even paying attention to those with whom they disagree. The governor herself has made such comments to local journalists with regard to the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity.
And so we go on, with one side of the political debate having its ideas (the better ideas, in my view) discounted and brushed aside. That isn’t an auspicious way to begin a much-needed recovery from this massive economic and civic hit we’re now taking.
Yesterday, the Flanders Legal Center for Freedom, an initiative of the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, released a brief analysis of the laws under which Governor Gina Raimondo has been dictating rules for all Rhode Islanders and our businesses, churches, and organizations. In short, those powers are not unlimited, and they are not intended to go without review.
The General Assembly has the absolute authority to end a declared state of emergency, especially when the Governor may not be acting with “restraint and moderation and with strict regard to the rights of the people.” This according to a legal analysis released today by the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity (Center).
The six-page analysis, conducted by the new Flanders Legal Center for Freedom, an initiative of the Center, takes a close look at the Rhode Island General Laws that vest emergency powers with the Governor. In examining the statutes under RI General Laws § 30-15, those powers are neither unlimited, unchecked, nor intended to be exercised with unbridled discretion.
Emergency powers are meant give the chief executive the ability to make decisions when they must be immediate. Where there is time for deliberation, the legislature must be involved. Their choice to hide from responsibility doesn’t give the governor new powers. It means the government can’t respond as necessary. If the General Assembly wishes to expand the governor’s emergency powers, it must pass a new law to do so (which courts may still find unconstitutional).
This applies most notably to the unilateral action the governor has taken to cancel months of school across the board, limit inalienable rights (e.g., the practice of religion), and forecast regulatory restrictions for the entire summer season.
Somewhere out there on social media, I saw Sam Howard declaring that he would not respond to my argument about his earlier criticism of me. Whether he lacks the time or the integrity to acknowledge obvious errors and dishonest omissions on his part, I won’t guess.
Nonetheless, the question raised in our debate is an interesting one: Does it tell us anything useful to divide the number of cases of COVID-19 in a city by the population density? I say, “yes.” We know population density affects the spread of disease, and dividing one number by another gives us a ratio. If two cities have the same population density and one has more cases than the other, the ratios tell us that the reason for the difference is something other than density.
Of course, it doesn’t tell us what that other something is. If City A is just as dense and twice as large than City B, one would expect City A to have more cases. If City A is half as dense as City B but twice as large, and if density is a linear factor, then all things equal, they would have the same number of cases.
To stress, though, I wasn’t proposing to develop that formula. In my prior posts, I was only suggesting that a simple population density ratio suggested that density really could explain the fact that Central Falls has the most cases of COVID-19 per capita in Rhode Island without resorting to racism.
Maybe a different comparison that leaves open the possibility of race as an explanation would help progressives understand what I’m trying to say. Chelsea, Massachusetts, has 40,160 people, 67% of whom are Hispanic, and they live 15,903 people per square mile. Cambridge, Massachusetts, has 118,977 people, 9.2% of whom are Hispanic, and they live 16,470 people per square mile.
All things equal, one would expect Cambridge to have about three times as many cases of COVID-19 as Chelsea, but in fact, the ratio is close to reversed. Cambridge has 826 cases to Chelsea’s 2,244. Thus, the number of cases per population density for Cambridge is 0.05, versus 0.14 for Chelsea. So, population density doesn’t explain the difference.
Of course, if we wanted a formula that brought in all of the relevant factors, it would be more complicated. In some situations, we might try to adjust by size, as I did with my diagram of Central Falls and Pawtucket. Or where the population densities are pretty much the same, we might focus on the number of people. Alternately, if the disease reached one city earlier than another, we might want to take the amount of elapsed time into account.
In any event, if two different cities have the same population density and the same cases per density, that would suggest that density may be the decisive factor. To be sure, if Cambridge had Chelsea’s 0.14, the former would still have fewer cases per capita, because it has so many more people. Thus, the explanation for the difference is something other than total population or population density. It could be race, although I’d argue it’s more likely other factors that happen to be associated with a particular group at this point in time and location.
To go back to my original post on this topic, if we look at cases per population density for Central Falls, the number is way lower than looking at just population density would lead us to expect, which suggests that population density could explain the entire difference, with room to spare. Interestingly, if we add Central Falls to the Massachusetts comparison, the RI city has comparable population density. Yet, it has about 30% of the cases of Chelsea. Some of the difference is obviously explained by the fact that Central Falls has about half the total population, but not all of the difference. And since they have pretty much the same percentages of Hispanics, that variable offers no insight.
Again, I’m not coming to any positive conclusions from these numbers. I’m merely pointing out that those who wish to ascribe Central Falls’s per capita rate of cases to racism have more work to do.
Anyway… things continue to improve in Rhode Island overall. Here’s the daily chart of hospitalizations:
Projections versus actuals (date of reporting):
- Projection for 5/13: 11,755
- Actual for 5/13: 11,835
- Projection for 5/14: 11,972
- Projection for 5/13: 264
- Actual for 5/13: 269
- Projection for 5/14: 251
- Projection for 5/13: 449
- Actual for 5/13: 462
- Projection for 5/14:
Mike Stanton is a former Providence Journal reporter, a successful author, and now a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut. Observers would have reasonable expectations that his opinion is well founded in facts when a man like that tweets out:
41 people went to church, socially distanced. 24 infected, 2 dead.
Cautionary tale for everyone eager to flock back to church.
Let the spirit live within you & celebrate your fellow man at home.
Except the details of the Canadian story to which he points don’t really justify his conclusion. In fairness, they’re peppered throughout the 827-word story, making them easy to miss (or to fail to connect), but they’re important nonetheless for anybody who honestly wants to understand the challenge we’re all facing and how we should proceed.
First, this is a single anecdote of one church. The article does not give any indication one way or another how many other churches in Canada, North America, or Planet Earth have conducted some kind of service during these times.
Second, the congregants didn’t only go to church. They also had a catered birthday party:
Food was served but everyone handling it wore gloves.
Third, this limited group of congregants wasn’t the only party to use the church:
It’s suspected the virus may have breached the church a day earlier when a large choir was using the facility.
Fourth, out of 41 participants in the service and party, 17 were not infected (41%), and 22 of those who were infected did not die (92%):
… 24 of the 41 people at the party ended up infected. Two of them died.
Fifth, the only identified person who died was elderly:
He was 81 but, according to his family, still very active.
To go from this set of circumstances to the conclusion that religious services are fatally dangerous requires a bit of a leap.
Contrary to Stanton’s proclamation, for believers, the primary purpose of church is not to “celebrate your fellow man,” but to commune with God. If that’s the case, limit gatherings to just the services. Don’t use the premises for other purposes. Disinfect areas that are used thoroughly between events. And encourage those who are vulnerable to COVID-19 in particular to take special precautions or abstain from attendance. Take these steps, and the danger probably sinks at least as low as the level of risk people take gathering together in ordinary times.
This is how the media shapes a narrative. Most people won’t read the story, taking the journalist at his word as somebody who (presumably) has digested the relevant information. Most of those who do read it will naturally pick up on the details that serve the conclusion they were told to expect, especially when contrary details are spread out and minimized. A new common knowledge develops that misinforms the public.
In the coming months and years, we’ll learn exactly what consequences come from irrational fear. (Included in the tally must be the social discord from the vitriol that is so contagious on social media.) What our information institutions ought to be doing is helping us to understand the dangers clearly enough to make good decisions that limit both the harm of the disease and the harm of our reaction to it. That isn’t the service we’re getting from our news media.
The IFR-S in the US was estimated to be 1.3% …. The overall IFR for COVID-19 should be lower when we account for cases that remain and recover without symptoms.
And 98.7% is almost certainly on the low side as scientists are, splendidly, in the process of “arguing” via data and model proxy about how much above 99% the survival rate actually is, mostly due to unidentified cases, as that analysis indicates. Keep in mind that scientists project the number of unidentified cases in New York alone at 2,700,000.
Here in Rhode Island, the overall survival rate of confirmed and probable cases is 96.25% though, horribly, three quarters of COVID deaths have taken place in nursing homes.
Meanwhile, Governor Raimondo has released excruciatingly detailed guidelines for restaurants to “re-open” that are, respectfully, completely unworkable, especially from the perspective of the continued viability of the establishment. She has done this – promulgated extremely detailed re-open guidelines – for most business sectors, with the exception of manufacturing which got a pass early on, as part of her elaborate, open-ended, slow-walk plan to re-open Rhode Island’s economy. I assume that the governor means well but the effect of this plan is to inexorably suffocate households and businesses by choking off wages and revenue.
The governor said at her press conference yesterday that we need to “go slow” ending the lockdown because we may overwhelm the system. But that doesn’t seem right; we didn’t overwhelm the healthcare system at the height of the spread – a significant accomplishment in itself and the sole goal of the lockdown – and long before we were taking personal prevention measures (masks, lots of hand sanitizing, no hand-shaking, etc).
Conversely, the lockdown is turning out to be far more destructive than well-intentioned officials hoped. Start with the economic decimation, global and here in Rhode Island – Gaspee Project’s Clay Johnson alarmingly enumerates the cascading damage from loss of wages, loss of business revenue and loss of tax revenue.
Even more disturbing are the health consequences of the lockdown. Well Being Trust, for example, warned late last week that the Covid-19 lockdown could kill 75,000 Americans through “deaths of despair”. Add to this deaths from withdrawal of medical care – cancer, heart conditions, stroke, more – due to the two-plus month de facto closure of hospitals/healthcare facilities and, going forward, the loss by millions of people of their health insurance due to forcible unemployment.
To echo Clay Johnson, I applaud the decision makers at all levels of government that quickly responded early on to the COVID-19 medical crisis and protected our hospitals. But we have come a very long way and are in a much better place than we were over two months ago.
Not only have our hospitals not been overwhelmed, even more importantly, we now know that the disease is way less fatal than we thought. In Rhode Island specifically, the survival rate of COVID-19 cases outside of nursing homes is over 99%. Accordingly, Governor Raimondo’s slow-walk re-open of the state’s economy is clearly unwarranted. She needs to either end the lockdown now, with reasonable safety measures during intermingling (at supermarkets, etc) that most of us now do reflexively and, especially, protection of our precious vulnerable populations, or offer a far more cogent explanation for continuing on a needlessly destructive course than allusion to a goal that has already, commendably, been accomplished.
Rhode Island’s COVID-19 data continues its improving trend. To some extent, it’s better than it looks because some newly reported deaths were revisions to earlier days. New positive tests was the lowest it’s been since April 7, and the rate of infection continues to decrease.
If we assume that cases are, on average, no longer active 14 days after diagnosis, then the number of such cases in Rhode Island has fallen from 4,810 on May 2 to 3,688 yesterday, a 23% decline.
Hospitalizations continue to decline in keeping with my simple projection model. Just because the we were approaching the last day I’d been showing on the chart, I’ve continued it out until the projection is for zero hospitalized patients. To be clear, I’m not actually predicting that; it’s just what the formula shows. It’s possible the formula would breakdown as the number gets smaller, but we also don’t know how loosening up restrictions on movement will affect things.
I’ve also made my original projection line more prominent… just for fun.
Projections versus actuals (date of reporting):
- Projection for 5/12: 11,602
- Actual for 5/12: 11,614
- Projection for 5/13: 11,755
- Projection for 5/12: 275
- Actual for 5/12: 277
- Projection for 5/13: 264
- Projection for 5/12: 436
- Actual for 5/12: 444
- Projection for 5/13: 449
Our Churches are thankful for your leadership during this COVID 19 crisis. We have been publicly praying for both yourself as well as all our elected officials during our streaming services. You have been given unusually heavy responsibilities at this time and the Bible encourages us to pray for you and all those in authority.
As pastors and church leaders, we care deeply for the health and welfare of our congregations and our communities. We do recognize the dangers and uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, and have supported the extraordinary measures all of us are having to take. However, as you move to reopening, we want churches to be considered as ‘essential’ and included in phase 1 of reopening. Let me give you a few reasons why I think it would be prudent, beneficial and in the state’s best interest.
First, it is clear that Church and religion are essential under both our state and federal Constitutions. The free exercise of religion and the freedom of assembly are both prominently enshrined in the first amendment to the US Constitution. And, encouraging religion and dependence on ‘Almighty God’ is stated as a priority in the preamble to the Rhode Island Constitution and throughout the articles.
Secondly, we can work together. Churches most often have a great support system making it easier to meet needs. We are a community. Relationship with God and with others is what we are all about, especially in times of crisis, we are essential to the spiritual, emotional and physical well-being of 10’s of 1,000’s of RI’ers. We shop for the elderly, the disabled and shut in’s. This week alone our church made 75 masks to pass out at no cost to seniors and in the case of an emergency there is always someone to call.
Thirdly, it costs the state nothing to allow and encourage churches to do what we do best, loving and helping people as Jesus teaches us. You cannot replace the care that takes place in our parishes, church services and Bible study groups with state agencies. We do many things the government cannot do and often better!
Governor Raimondo, church ‘IS’ essential for thousands of Rhode Islanders. The Word of God commands us to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together. We have done our best to temporarily adapt to these extraordinary circumstances but with statistics slowly changing and reopening imminent, the reopening of our churches must be in the first stage. Most of our denominational affiliations have published strict guidelines to help us cooperate with state guidelines for physical distancing protocols, disinfecting and more. The U.S. Department of Justice said last week, “For many people of faith, exercising religion is essential, especially during a crisis.” We are asking you to trust us now and free us up.
It’s hard to even imagine a worship service with 5 people. Churches have been already thinking through and planning for reopening. Most churches have enough square footage to abide by social distancing and yet accommodate groups of 50 safely. The same would be true for weddings. There is almost never a greater demand for clergy involvement than ‘end of life’ situations. Right now pastors are not allowed to meet with people in the hospitals or nursing homes for prayer and counsel Father Taillon of Narragansett commented on behalf of the Diocese of Providence that 10 or less at a funeral is not sufficient to meet the needs of a grieving family. I agree emphatically and so would the majority of pastors I’ve spoken with. For funerals, MA is allowing 25 and CT 50 while RI is 10 or less.
It may have been an oversight, but during this crisis I’ve heard you thank many organizations but rarely the Churches where so much has been and is being done. We would very much like to have representation on your advisory board. Rhode Island will do better with the ‘Faith Community’ on your team.
Respectfully, on Behalf of the following RI Churches and Family Policy Alliance of RI, Rev. David Aucoin
YES, we say, “Churches are ESSENTIAL!”
- Jonathan Angell – North Kingstown AG – N. Kingstown
- Phil Curtis – Ministry Training Network / Exeter Chapel
- Dave Gadoury – Together/Love RI – Cranston
- Steve Boyce – Awakening/New Life – North Smithfield
- Kevin McKay – Grace Harbor – Providence
- Patrick Dochety – Full Gospel Businessmen – Providence
- Herson Gonzalez – Calvary Worship Center – Woonsocket
- Scott Asadorian – Deacon – Generation Church – S. Kingstown
- Herman Falu – Church of the Master – Providence
- Paul Hoffman – Evangelical Friends Church – Newport
- Keith Mlyniec – Harbor Church – No. Kingstown
- Dave Therrien – New Hope – Swansea
- Steve Shippee – Faith Fellowship Community Church – W. Greenwich
- Richard Leahey – Solid Rock AG – Cranston
- Travis Rymer – Grace Harbor – Providence
- Olivier Bala – Mt. Hope Baptist – Providence
- Joel Sedam – Mt. Hope – Bristol
- Bob Rosinski – King’s Grant Fellowship – Portsmouth
- John Wheeler – Stony Lane Baptist – North Kingstown
- Dave Aucoin – Abundant Life AG – Barrington/Swansea
An article in the Fall River Herald describes the frustration of hotel owners in Newport, RI, with their inability to make plans, because government officials aren’t giving clear signals about what might happen with stringent regulations imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic:
Hotel owners and operators say they need a target date from state officials so they can begin booking out-of-state guests who won’t face a 14-day quarantine upon arrival.
“Without a target date, we can’t market and plan,” said Kate DeCosta, chief operating officer for the Newport Experience, which operates the OceanCliff Hotel. “Without a date, we can’t start booking rooms. Every day we can’t do that, we are held back from recapturing lost revenues. It’s a double whammy now.”
Owner Colin Kane suggests that even “guidance” that they shouldn’t open all summer would be preferable to no decisions’ being made. At least the businesses could decide to shut down for the season and make plans from there.
The problem is that we’re operating in vagueness at the moment, because the governor doesn’t actually have the authority to unilaterally declare that legal businesses will remain shut for more than a month, or two months, or a summer. Governor Gina Raimondo may be stringing things along because she’s hoping for a good turn or a miracle cure that allows as much tourism as possible in 2020, but even if she thinks these businesses should close, she lacks the authority to demand it.
Such a declaration would have political repercussions, too. This wouldn’t necessarily be a crass political calculation; a move as profound as effectively cancelling summer could spark much broader rebellion across the state, making the governor’s precautionary measures completely useless.
Of course, the hotels could decide for themselves that planning for a lost season is a better option than being unprepared to plan for anything. Or they could begin to fight the governor’s assumption of power. As with festival managers, however, one suspects that guidance isn’t all the businesses want, but guidance that their competitors feel compelled to follow, as well.
Add this to a growing list of reasons our representatives and senators in the General Assembly are proving to be worse than useless when their positions require them to have the smallest bit of courage. They could offer guidance with legal standing months into the future. But then they’d have to take responsibility for the consequences, one way or another. (They should have to take responsibility for the consequences of their utter failure to do their jobs, but the insiders have Rhode Island so locked up that they probably won’t.)
Thus, we’re back to the underlying problem: Based on the standards that the governor has set for pandemic control, she can’t really offer a target date for opening, and as a state, we have allowed her complete autonomy to set those standards. One needn’t conclude that she has chosen poorly (although I do), but leaving it as her choice alone means choices can’t be confidently made.
My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for May 11, included talk about:
- The governor’s New Order
- Cops push back
- Protesters push back
- The press pushes back
- Will businesses push back?
- Will the General Assembly push back?
- Elorza gets push-back and stumbles
Skipping the daily chart update for COVID-19 hospitalizations in Rhode Island didn’t deprive readers of anything, mostly because the line has been very close to the same, which means the model has, for these few days anyway, been predicting the correct decrease.
Across all of the various measures, COVID-19 is on the decline in Rhode Island. New cases fell below a 2% daily increase in today’s data, which means less than a 0.5 infection rate over 14-days. Under the current trend, Rhode Island would see its last new case reported on June 13. Of course, that’s very unlikely because the government is — rightly — allowing more movement and activity.
This leads to our regular reminder that political leaders should be putting forward clear signals about what the targets are for our reopening, and we in the public should be debating it. Clearly we don’t want to cause catastrophe by overwhelming our medical system, but how much are we, as a state, willing to encounter this disease in our regular lives, and at what cost are we willing to declare COVID deaths unacceptable?
To answer that question, we’ll have to acknowledge that our response is killing people, too. A study by Well Being Trust, for example, estimates that the United States could see 75,000 “deaths of despair” — that is, fatalities due to suicide, overdose, substance abuse, and so on.
We also have to be clear about the deaths that we are witnessing. In the 51 days of available data since the first Rhode Island COVID-19 death, only seven days saw more deaths in the hospital than out of it. If people are passing elsewhere, it probably means that their case was hopeless or they were already in locations — like nursing homes — that are like hospitals. In short, they are in identifiable locations that can be protected.
If we’re smart, reasonable, and a little bit courageous, it isn’t inconceivable that we could accelerate our reopening without spikes in the measures that are the most important (hospitalizations and deaths).
One-day projections and actuals:
- Projection for 5/11: 11,427
- Actual for 5/11: 11,450
- Projection for 5/12: 11,602
- Projection for 5/11: 276
- Actual for 5/11: 278
- Projection for 5/12: 275
- Projection for 5/11: 428
- Actual for 5/11: 430
- Projection for 5/12: 436
I’ll give this to Sam Howard: At least he tries. Most progressives just go with insults and a tone of superiority, asserting that the person with whom they disagree is so obviously wrong that the reason doesn’t merit explanation. At least Howard tries to explain.
And when somebody tries to explain, that means the other person can respond, and everybody involved (or watching) can try to figure out what’s at the core of the disagreement. In this case, it seems to me that the core of the disagreement is that Howard’s attempt at an explanation only goes far enough to give a partial argument, while still relying on the self-righteous tone and insults to fill in the gaps.
In this endeavor, he writes as if he has found errors in my basic math. The image he appends to a tweet promoting his post is of the equation, “1 + 1 =3.” But his arguments have little to nothing to do with math, and mostly to do with aesthetics and an unshakable faith that I must be wrong.
So, he posts a chart that he doesn’t like from my regular employment series in this space. His reason isn’t that any math is wrong. He just thinks that one of the five or six charts that appear in those posts illustrates a point in a way he doesn’t like. It’s not the math that’s wrong, in his view, but the vocabulary. He doesn’t like that I called Rhode Island an “outlier” for job recovery… eight years ago.
Next, he posts another chart that he doesn’t like from the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Freedom Index series… four years ago. What’s funny, here, is that Howard points out something that’s clear on the chart as evidence that the chart somehow obscures it. There’s no real substance to his complaint, though, and certainly no math. Indeed, there’s a good bit of dishonesty. Howard provides no link to the object of his criticism and misleads his readers by suggesting that the chart he doesn’t like is the whole thing. “A table would’ve been a better way to display this ‘data.'” I don’t disagree. That’s why the actual report presents seven tables and two other charts. (Note: I like the spiral chart not to compare Republicans and Democrats, but because it’s interesting to watch from year to year.)
But these are all just warm-ups by which Howard hopes to establish some sort of pattern of misleading math on my part. The subject about which he’s concerned is a recent post in which I suggest that focusing on race and COVID-19 doesn’t appear to be helpful in Rhode Island, most especially because it is skewed by a single RI city that is by far the most densely populated and by far the most Hispanic.
Here we have more of both the humor and the dishonesty of Howard’s essay. He spends two paragraphs on how he couldn’t make my math make sense before he acknowledges that if you follow the link that I provided and find the data I cited, it works out. He does correctly point out that I’d mislabeled two numbers as cases per person per mile. I’ve corrected and explained the reason for my error in the original post. That’s not bad math — he figured it out readily — but something more like a typo.
This is where one begins to wonder if Howard understands what math is and why it helps us understand the world around us:
This isn’t a just “different finding” in Donnis’ phrasing. It’s just bad (and deceptive) math. You don’t divide the raw number of cases in a town by its population density, because population density is an estimate of a single square mile, and the disease is not contained to a single square mile of a particular town.
With such a calculation, Katz doesn’t really demonstrate anything beyond that when a denominator is larger than the numerator, the result is a small number; and the smaller the denominator, the larger the result.
There is a lot to unpack here. First, notice that his first objection isn’t to me at all, but to the Public’s Radio reporter Ian Donnis. I didn’t call my article a “different finding,” but rather, it was an argument that racial findings with respect to COVID-19 in Rhode Island seem to distract from more-relevant factors. Nowhere do I write that the numbers of different groups who have tested positive for COVID-19 were wrong.
Second, one of the key reasons math is so important as a language is that it allows us to understand concepts that aren’t readily visualized or put into words. Population density isn’t just an estimate of an abstract square mile; it’s a rate that measures something real. For a disconnected example, think of the math behind string instruments, where the velocity of a vibration in a string is the square root of the amount of tension divided by its linear density. In our case, the tension is the infection rate and the density is the “mass” of people for every square mile.
Third, Howard’s explanation of how fractions work evades the key point, which is exactly that the denominators are different. If disease spreads more readily in a place that is densely populated, then you would expect the numbers to be higher in that area. If race is an additional factor, then the next question is whether the sickness in the population is higher or lower than what you would expect in a population of that population density.
To illustrate the point I was trying to get at, consider the following four representations. I used Central Falls and Pawtucket because their relative populations, sizes, densities, and numbers of infections made them easy to compare. (Note that these aren’t intended for comparison from one set to the next; they’re only to compare the two cities in each set.) If we look at cases per capita, Central Falls has about twice as many infections. If we look at cases per square mile, Central Falls has about four times as many infections. But Pawtucket is about eight times as big as Central Falls and has about 3 2/3 as many people, so if we look at total infections, Pawtucket approaches nearly twice as many.
Now to the last set. As Howard notes, cases per population density is an abstraction, which is why we need mathematics in order to discuss it. So, the illustration below is just an attempt to represent the abstraction of the numbers. Dividing the cases in Central Falls by the population density yields 0.03; for illustration, I’ve represented that across 100 dots. The same number for Pawtucket is about 0.12, but since Pawtucket is about half as densely populated as Central Falls, I’ve represented that across 50 dots in the same-sized area.
So, in this arbitrary area of space, three out of 100 units in Central Falls are infected, while six out of 50 units in Pawtucket are. Why is that? I don’t know; there are way too many unknown variables. But I wasn’t trying to prove what the number should be, only that race doesn’t explain the discrepancy.
Apparently, neither does population density, perfectly. That’s why Howard’s reference to Newport really doesn’t prove anything, especially his attempt to shove everything into ranks of municipalities. For all his talk about math, you’d think he’d understand that the order in which cities might be put on a list by some measure doesn’t make them evenly spaced. The drop-off in population density is huge — from about 16,000 per square mile in Central Falls to 9,000 in Providence and 8,000 in Pawtucket, with big jumps down from there. Newport may be the “eighth most-dense” city in the state, but every municipality outside of the three or five most dense is so much more open than Central Falls that other factors could easily overwhelm density for the transmission of disease (mix of industries, style of housing, size of families, etc.).
If you want to argue that the race of the residents has some causal effect, you should argue that the red dots in that final Central Falls box would have been even fewer if its population were less Hispanic. On that point, Howard doesn’t even try. In fact, he almost resorts to arguing my case: ” a large part of what causes COVID-19 spread is people infecting others in their living or work areas. When people are unable to isolate, they infect others.” This is population density.
Howard then goes on to list a number of other factors that might affect the spread of disease, and they all have one thing in common: None of them are race or ethnicity. It’s easy to imagine how poverty, type of job, size of family, and so on could play a role in transmission, but jamming all of that into racial categories distracts from the actual causes, especially because it brings in the specter of racism, which makes it much more difficult to discuss anything in a clinical way in our society.
But clinical discussion clearly isn’t what Sam Howard is interested in doing.
Toward the end of his essay, Howard observes that I pointed out that the majority of deaths are among white Rhode Islanders. Howard: “what Katz omits, and is crucial, is that while he does have the racial and ethnic composition for both RI and its COVID-19 fatalities correct, that includes Rhode Islanders of all ages.”
Simply put, he’s lying. In the very next sentence after the one to which he referrs, I write, “Of course, this is because the disease is almost exclusively fatal to older people, and they are more likely to be white in Rhode Island, right now.”
All of his snide rhetoric and dishonesty leads to Howard’s real reason for writing, which is to lament that anybody would dare link to me to provide readers a different point of view, claiming I write in “bad faith.” He’s got that backwards. I’m expressing a point of view in the hopes of challenging fashionable assumptions and starting discussions. As I’ve proven above, if somebody presents an actual argument, I’ll gladly mull it over and debate it.
If that’s not your thing, then don’t click the link, but don’t unleash a barrage of insults and lies in order to claim that I’m the one acting in bad faith. It’s truly sad that Sam Howard stands out not for his personal attacks and dishonesty, but because he’s at least willing to pretend to debate.
Matt Sheaff is the Director of Communications and Stakeholder Outreach for the Commerce Corporation, which is a “quasi-public” agency whose director of communications and stakeholder outreach somehow also handles strategy for several full, honest-to-goodness state agencies. (It seems odd that a quasi-public agency apparently has authority over regular agencies, but nobody’s ever asked the governor why she sets things up that way.)
Since his role is communications, and he’s supposed to connect government agencies with stakeholders, something Sheaff tweeted last night deserves a close look:
If you’re a RI noncritical retail business planning on opening tomorrow – here’s a reminder of the steps you must take before reopening (including hanging the poster that’s included at the link in a place visible for your employees & customers)
Sheaff links to a flier for all those “noncritical retailers” to sign and post. I’ll get to that in a moment.
To start, imagine yourself as one of the people Sheaff is ostensibly targeting with his tweet. You’ve been closed down for weeks, losing money and scrambling to keep your business viable. More recently, you’ve been doing your best to plan for reopening as the person who shut your business down — the governor of the State of Rhode Island — has played a game of “maybe I will, maybe I won’t” and delayed key details until the last minute.
Still, you need to be open as soon as possible, so you’ve done what you can to prepare, and here you are on the eve of reopening, with your entire staff probably feeling some anxiety about getting back to it. In fact, you’re may also be dealing with employees who responded to your latest text message by asking if it’d be okay for them to stay unemployed for a while, because the government that shut you down is giving them better pay for not working.
You have no idea what to expect, tomorrow, and you’re doing everything you can to make your establishment look comfortable and safe. You’re spending every waking hour (if not devoted to filling out loan forms and trying to schedule bill payments just right) thinking about your customers and what might get them to return to your store.
And here comes this guy, whose well-paying government job was probably never endangered, making sure that you know there are some more bureaucratic “steps” that you “must take before reopening.” Just to ensure you don’t miss the message, he emphasizes that you are a “noncritical retail business.” The world could live without you.
A communications professional tasked specifically with thinking about “stakeholders” might have come up with a better way of phrasing that. He might have said, “If you’re one of RI’s cherished business owners reopening tomorrow, we are with you every step of the way! Don’t forget to display this poster that we developed to help your employees and customers feel more comfortable getting back to business.” (Yes, that even fits on Twitter.)
In fairness to Sheaff, that isn’t the tone that his boss is promoting, and it isn’t how she thinks of business owners. This pandemic is really about how well she’s running everything for us, so if you want to get back to your business and to your life, you’d better listen up and “knock it off.” Raimondo’s going to tell you how to do it.
One suspects the poster isn’t intended as a tool to increase comfort and pass along information. It’s a tool of subordination. It isn’t at all clear that the governor has the legal authority to create these extensive, business-by-business, regulations as a condition of your economic activity. Therefore, she and her employees (whose criticality is never questioned) have to establish the belief that you have to follow her rules. If you sign a document and post it for all to see, your bound to the rules by honor, whether or not the rules are legally binding.
If her communications directors (yes, plural) started giving you the impression that we’re involved in a cooperative endeavor in a “government by the people,” you might at some point question whether you have to jump through every hoop dangling before you, and that would be unacceptable.
Rhode Island’s new data for COVID-19 shows positive trends again today, although (again) deaths remain too many. As that dataset continues to remain stubbornly consistent, as the others decline, it should begin to change the way we think of the disease.
Most especially, consider that the number is much higher outside of the hospital than in it. Over the past four weeks, an average of eight people have died outside the hospital, but an average of a less than five inside. The reason, readers will know, is that nursing homes have been the real danger zone for this virus.
This doesn’t make the lives lost less of a source of sorrow, but how we feel about the world we live in depends how we perceive the threats. If somebody had told us, before this all started, that the Wuhan virus was largely a disease for the elderly, we would all have felt differently about it… and responded differently.
Turning back to the positives, number of new cases in general continued to slow, with the 14-day infection rate down to 0.61 (with one being the pivot point between expansion and contraction). If we assume a 14-day life for “active” sickness, the number should dip below 4,000 tomorrow.
Meanwhile, hospitalizations continue to decrease, despite upward revisions going back most of the way to the very start.
- Projection for 5/8: 10,694
- Actual for 5/8: 10,779
- Projection for 5/9: 10,936
- Projection for 5/8: 300
- Actual for 5/8: 312
- Projection for 5/9: 294
- Projection for 5/8: 394
- Actual for 5/8: 399
- Projection for 5/9: 405
With the public scared, social distancing rules in force, stores closed, restaurants available for takeout only, and the State House blocked off even for quick one-person bathroom stops, it’s been a challenging time for protest.
If you believe government should have more control over people’s lives and are looking for some way to edge a free people in that direction, you couldn’t ask for much more than a global pandemic. And if the underlying virus is mild relative contagions of history and Hollywood tales, all the better, because you can take credit for bringing in your people’s mortality below the scary projections that led them to let you grab more power.
Protests are more-difficult during these times, but not impossible, and Monday, May 11, from 12:00-2:00 p.m., there will be one at the Rhode Island State House in Providence. Rather, the protest will be around the State House, with people distancing by staying in their cars and circling the seat of political power in our state.
So, pack a lunch or drive through for some fast food or Dunkin’ Donuts on your way into the city, tune in to John DePetro on 1380AM, and make your voice heard (so to speak). With legislators hiding under their beds and the governor in complete control of the state, the only way to impose limits on her power is to give her the feeling that she might lose control.
Enough is enough. Rhode Islanders aren’t children, and we aren’t selfish. We can follow guidelines and take care of each other without closures and dictates and fines.
We live in a world where some would insist that it is racist to say that it’s wrong to inject race into every public discussion, but doing so very often obscures more than it reveals. As with claims about gender differences in pay, observed discrepancies often have more to do with things that are only incidental to racial groups.
Consider talk about racial disparities in COVID-19 infections. Among the state Department of Health’s regular charts reporting daily results is one divided by race, and many have commented on the fact that a full 44% of all cases have been found among people identifying as Hispanic. Even though they only represent around 13% of the population, Hispanics account for 44% of all positive cases of COVID-19. Central Falls, which is around 66% Hispanic, leads the state in the number of cases of COVID-19 per capita, at 2,595 per 100,000 residents.
But focusing on race doesn’t tell us much about the disease, or even about discrimination. Mostly it seems to be evidence that communicable diseases are especially dangerous to places that are densely populated. In those terms, Central Falls is by far Rhode Island’s most densely populated city, at 16,147 people per square mile. (The city is pretty much just a square mile.)
So, if we recalculated to rank our cities and towns by cases per person per square mile, Central Falls drops to 32nd in the state. Providence becomes number 1 in the state by that method, but it is followed by Burrillville, North Kingstown, Smithfield, and Exeter. That isn’t exactly a racial profile. And it isn’t a close thing. Burrillville has 0.25 cases per person per square mile to Central Falls’s 0.03.* Given its density, Central Falls is doing very well.
“But,” the progressives will say, “the racist part is that we’ve isolated this one group in a densely populated area.” Leave aside the fact that progressives have tended to want people to condense into urban areas, as well as questions of whether it is reasonable to blame the decisions of those communities on people who make different residential decisions and whether any of this is a function of race so much as the length of time immigrant groups have happened to be establishing their families in the area.
The key point, here, is that the most important bit of information we can know at the moment is how the disease is spreading and who is vulnerable. Introducing race where population density provides explanation is a distraction, and distractions while dealing with a crisis can be deadly.
For further illustration of the point, return to the Dept. of Health’s race-based chart, and instead of looking at cases, click “hospitalizations.” Whereas Hispanics account for 44% of all cases, they only account for 33% of all hospitalizations. Even more striking: their percentage of fatalities is exactly in line with their percentage of the population: 14%.
In contrast, Non-Hispanic whites account for 79% of all deaths, despite being only 74% of the population. Of course, this is because the disease is almost exclusively fatal to older people, and they are more likely to be white in Rhode Island, right now. Would anybody claim that racism is to blame for this outcome, by concentrating our white people into nursing homes?
Turning to the regular COVID-19 report, trends are more or less as they had been. Although the one-day increase in cases was significantly higher than it’s been in a number of days, the trend is still downward, as it is for hospitalizations and intensive care unit usage. Meanwhile, the number of deaths is not improving as quickly as anybody would like.
- Projection for 5/7: 10,371
- Actual for 5/7: 10,530
- Projection for 5/8: 10,694
- Projection for 5/7: 307
- Actual for 5/7: 318
- Projection for 5/8: 300
- Projection for 5/7: 376
- Actual for 5/7: 388
- Projection for 5/8: 394
* In the spreadsheet built for comparisons of density, I had a column multiplying my cases per person per population calculation by 100 to get it out of decimals as I reviewed the data. In transcribing that number to text for this post, I didn’t account for this change.
I applaud the decision makers, at all levels of government, that quickly responded to the medical crisis. But health issues only represent one component of the challenges in front of us. We all hunkered down for weeks to ‘flatten the curve.’ Our common goal was to ensure that, as a community, we had enough hospital beds for those most vulnerable. Well, we’ve flattened the curve. (And we know now that the survival rate of COVID-19 in the United States is almost 95%.) Why then are governments having a hard time moving to the next stage during this time of testing? I can only believe that most people were more familiar with the fears and responses to the medical side of the crisis.
Let’s explore the impact on small businesses. Almost half of all employees in the United States work for a small business. In fact, 96% of Rhode Island businesses are small businesses. They are the engine of our economy. Business owners can feel in their bones, the impact of this shutdown on Rhode Island. We owe it to the rest of the citizens of Rhode Island to communicate this feeling. Government needs to understand, as they did with the medical component of this crisis, the impact on employers. If they did, the Governor would hold a daily press briefing on businesses impacted, businesses stressed, and businesses failed.
Let’s look at the local gas station, in good times. When a ne’er-do-well drives off with a full tank of gas, it would be easy to assume that this loss would be made up by a sale to the next customer. But that $30 dollars in gas only represents about 25 cents in profit to the local gas station. That means, they need to sell to 120 more customers just to get back to not losing money.
What happens to a business during this pandemic? When they are closed by order of the Governor, it is easy to assume that the business profit drops to zero. However, many expenses are required to be paid anyway. Things like business loans, rent, property taxes, utilities, and insurance drive profit negative – to the tune of thousands of dollars per month. Even if the business owner figures out how to defer some payments and finance others, the end result is an outflow of money. The business owner is literally paying to keep the business viable in the hopes that the Governor reopens the economy quickly enough for them to start making a profit again. And, like the gas station, they have lost the profit during this closure. So, recovery will take many more months than the length of the original closure itself. And on re-opening day, the business owner will have the additional, unforgiven portion, of the Paycheck Protection Loan as well as any increased balances on credit cards.
So, just because you don’t see buildings crumbling or signs being removed from structures does not mean that there isn’t a second painful component of this pandemic that is taking place all around us. Many businesses will not re-open. Every day that passes increases these numbers. There is no flattening this curve unless the government mandates are lifted. This concern should also be measured and reported in the Governor’s daily briefing. But, alas, Governor Raimondo is too busy auditioning to become Joe Biden’s running mate.
And as we turn our attention to government, there is a similar story. Just because all of those government departments still exist does not mean that they are funded. The main funding source was the hum of the running economy. Hotel taxes. Gambling taxes. Income taxes. Sales taxes. All of these funding sources are evaporating with the business shut down. As we all know, there is nothing more permanent than a temporary government solution. And the permanent bueauracratic-governmental complex, housing the well-connected political class will seek to remain fully funded. All funding sources eventually dry up unless the economic engine begins turning. And, like businesses across the state, the government is burning through their reserves, and papering over catastrophe with funny numbers. A reckoning is coming. And, as you can imagine, their go-to move will be to raise taxes, increase fees. Every tax, and every fee. They will talk about finding sustainable funding sources while floating revenue anticipation bonds.
It is our job, yours and mine, to remind them that they were myopically focused on the medical crisis, and, in their single-minded focus, they forgot about everything else. It is now time for the political class to ratchet down the size of government. They have already asked enough of the business community.
Every business and every job is essential to our state’s economic recovery. Take action; click here to sign the Gaspee Project’s petition to #ReOpenRI.
Clay Johnson is Chairman of the Gaspee Project.
Given the turn our approach to government had taken before COVID-19 — with lifelong sinecures in seemingly every (paid) elective office that doesn’t have term limits and government budgets so big they have tides and so corrupt you can’t see the bottom — it is largely justified that the term, “politician,” has become a pejorative. Still, there is a purpose to that role in government. The public sentiment matters not only to get people elected, but also because sentiment affects how people act.
(If you want to get deep, this is one place a purely materialist view of the universe breaks down. How people feel matters in what happens in the physical world.)
Consider the whole thing with Governor Gina Raimondo’s mandate to wear masks in public. Many of us have had an adverse reaction to the command to do something that we have already been doing or would probably do if it were simply presented as a respectful behavior. Instead, we get a command (made worse by our governor’s way of speaking… “I need you to do this,” “part of me is proud of you,” “I will find a way for us out of this,” and so on) that causes many to bristle. That bristling, in turn, transforms the response of mask-supporters from persuasion into harsh condemnation (“which of my family members do you want to DIE?”).
The wearing of a mask, and even the executive order to do so, isn’t really the problem. If, for example, the mask order had been in lieu of a massive economic shutdown, or even just to shorten it, that would be completely different. Instead, a sizable group in our society (me included) thinks the shutdown has gone on too long and is planned for too slow of a loosening, so we don’t see the masks as a more-moderate alternative, but rather, as a burdensome addition to the imposition and power grab.
Sarah Hoyt wrote recently about the physics cliché that theories sometimes require that we imagine a “spherical cow of uniform density in a frictionless vacuum.” Cows aren’t like that, and humans definitely aren’t. We can’t be managed from the top down and told what to do because, first, we aren’t all the same, and second, how ideas are conveyed to us affects how we respond.
And so… politics.
Over the years of her administration, our governor has systematically separated her administration from the public feedback loop with a viscous layer of public relations employees. People in agencies who actually do the government’s work aren’t permitted to interact with the public as much so that the governor can control the message that gets out, but it also constrains the message that gets in.
During this crisis, the governor has also shut herself off from the feedback loop that journalists provide. They’re out there getting emails and receiving tweets from people responding to (often complaining about) their news coverage, and yet, Raimondo, for all her daily time in the spotlight, has refused the unpredictable spectacle of a live press conference in which all of these reporters can percolate ideas.
And even more, our General Assembly has been hiding under its political bed. Of all the branches of government, it is the legislature that is meant to be most attuned to the desires of the public. In Rhode Island, legislators are up for reelection every two years, and they (theoretically) represent diverse interests across the state. That is why they are supposed to provide the incubator for our laws. In their debates about bills (imagine for a moment that they actually debated bills in Rhode Island), they address the problem that cows aren’t spherical. In order to gain consensus, they have to address what they’re hearing from the diverse public.
As Glenn Reynolds noted last week, “the lockdowns are going to come to an end” not because of “camo-clad protesters on capitol steps so much as ordinary people just deciding to go out.” He also hypothesizes that the word, “quarantine,” comes from the Italian for “40 days” because that’s “about the longest most people can stand staying cooped up.”
At the moment, many people are grateful that the coronavirus hasn’t had the predicted death toll, and they credit the government’s economic shutdown. In the months and years to come, the consequences of that approach will become painfully clear, and the public will likely reassess the decision.
Had we not replaced politics with executive orders, we would probably have moderated our response, and we would all feel some degree of ownership in the solution, because we all would have felt represented. That is a massive failure of our government, and I fear it will have disastrous consequences.
My COVID-19 update, today, had a dark tinge to it. Shortly after I posted it, the shuffle on my music player produced (randomly, I’m told) a string of songs about death. As far as meaningful coincidences go, this was a pretty gloomy one.
Be that as it may, the coincidence made the moment timely to revisit my weekend post on Dust in the Light. In brief, I propose that, whether we are religious or not, our sense of meaning comes from our sense of a relationship:
One especially pressing question, these days, is how we can find meaning in a shut-down world. Shut off from others. Constrained in the unique experiences we can have. Perhaps struggling to make ends meet or keep alive that which we have labored to create — a business, an organization, a relationship.
That last is most on-point. One way or another, questions of meaning seem to come back to a relationship with God. Even those who disbelieve in the usual notions of a deity must find meaning in their relationship with reality. And what is a relationship? It’s an ongoing communication.
Having a sense that God or the universe is communicating with us is challenging, to say the least, because the messages are both inscrutable and also so fundamental to our lives that it’s difficult to distinguish them from something that just is.
Sometimes the messages we seem to be receiving contradict each other. Often, we can’t know whether they come from God or something else, such as the materialist world. On top of these sources of confusion, pleasurable feelings don’t necessarily mean that we’re on the right track, and suffering doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re on the wrong one. (This paradox is particularly prominent in Christian thinking.)
Ultimately, as in human relationships, what we most control is our own contribution. Thus, the important thing about material success isn’t that we are being affirmed, but that we have the opportunity to respond through our actions and how we use our gains.
Just so, it is our decision to try to understand what God (or the universe) wants of us and to respond accordingly that ensures the communication and the sense of meaning. When one’s playlist reinforces the morbid mood of a clouding afternoon, it isn’t a one-way clue about what you should expect; it’s an opportunity to ask how the moment can be made meaningful toward a positive end.
The positive trends continue. All that can really be said is that my simplistic model seems to expect that things would be improving a little more quickly than they are, but that’s a good problem to have. The 14-day infection rate is now at 0.75, where 1 is the line between the virus’s increasing or decreasing.
Assuming the governor deigns to allow more freedom in her state, these decreases in new cases and, in turn, hospitalizations may slow. Or maybe they won’t, whether because heightened spacing and hygiene is simply an adequate solution or because the better weather and increased outdoor time creates a healthier environment.
One peculiarity is that, beginning roughly around the time the state changed its definition for COVID-19 hospitalization to include anybody in the hospital who tests positive for COVID-19, no matter what they’re actually in the hospital for, deaths have been revised and have more or less fluctuated around 13-14 per day for several weeks. Of course, it’s difficult to know what to make of these numbers regardless of the trends. The data for April 29, for example, shows two more deaths in hospitals than there were deaths total.
On the dark subject of death, though, it’s worth remembering a number we won’t know for some time, and may never be able to estimate in a universally accepted way: fatalities resulting from our reaction to the disease. Two recent stories illustrate the reason for concern.
First, the website, TheCancerLetter.com, reports that visits for cancer treatments has dropped dramatically. To be sure, individuals are making their own decisions about whether they can wait, and one hopes those who are foregoing treatment tend to be those for whom the answer is, “yes.” Still, news out of hospitals generally is that cancer patients will not be alone in this trend, and if treatment actually is helpful and life-saving, some number of deaths will result.
Second, the NY Daily News reports that suicides are way up in Queens. If I’m reading the article correctly, the increase might be nearly four times, with 16 suicides in a little over a month, compared with 17 for the first four months of the year, in 2019. For some perspective, in Rhode Island, the number of deaths resulting from COVID-19 is at the moment just about equal to the annual number of suicides and overdoses.
- Projection for 5/6: 10,098
- Actual for 5/6: 10,205
- Projection for 5/7: 10,371
- Projection for 5/6: 312
- Actual for 5/6: 324
- Projection for 5/7: 307
- Projection for 5/6: 361
- Actual for 5/6: 370
- Projection for 5/7: 376
An interesting discrepancy can be observed between the way Governor Gina Raimondo’s decree that everybody must wear face masks in public places was reported yesterday and the text of the order itself.
As conveyed through her daily press briefing, Raimondo’s order would require faces to be covered in all public places except for “a solitary walk or bike ride.” Rather than emphasizing consistency with what many people have already been doing, she amplified her message as if we’re encountering some new period of human existence: “We have to embrace new ways of living our lives.” Pair that with the threat of civil fines for people who don’t comply, and you’re guaranteed to raise hackles among those Americans who still believe our country is defined by its liberty rather than its collectivist compliance.
In an email that just now arrived in my inbox, our continually self-referential ruler continues that tone:
The only exceptions are for young children and anyone whose health would be negatively impacted by wearing a face covering. The order goes into effect Friday, but I want you to get into the habit of wearing your face covering wherever you go starting now. If you’re outside of your home and around other people, you should be wearing a face covering.
Reading the order itself, however, it appears that the governor (or her PR staff) is not accurately describing its limits. Consider:
Face coverings are not required for people who can easily, continuously, and measurably maintain at least six (6) feet of distance from other people.
To the extent that rule actually means what it says, it’s a pretty big exception that the governor doesn’t mention very prominently. Through most of our daily lives, we can “easily, continuously, and measurably maintain at least six feet of distance from other people.” Only in a very crowded place would this be impossible.
But the specifics have to be answered: What makes your situation easy, continuous, and measurable? Who decides? Does some mask cop hand you a ticket because, even though you’re walking on a largely empty street, some jogger could turn a corner at any moment, or some stranger could decide to violate your space with no warning? We can’t know until it happens.
Judging from the governor’s rhetoric, we are to assume that we must wear a mask except while on a stroll in the country. Yet, when people challenge this dictate on social media, the governor’s defenders are likely to chime in and insist that they’re exaggerating the word of the her new law.
The governor’s goal appears to be to give herself maximal flexibility to sound reasonable under the law while making as many people as possible think it’s stronger than it is. It’s trickery to get us to comply with an order the governor does not have the power to enforce… until it turns out that she does have that power because the public has been conditioned to see the targets of penalties as selfish scofflaws who want people to die.