The most pressing problem facing Americans today is how and when states and local areas reopen after the coronavirus lockdowns. President Trump, stressing the terrible economic damage the lockdowns have done, has (mostly) pressed for reopening sooner rather than later. He has released detailed guidelines for officials in the states to consult when deciding when to reopen.
Where does Joe Biden stand on all this? Even though he is the presumptive presidential nominee of his party, and even though reopening is the most urgent issue of the time, and even though he claims far greater competence and leadership ability than the current president, and even though he has said quite a lot about the coronavirus issue broadly, Biden has been quite vague about when he would OK reopening, were he in the White House.
On April 12, Biden published an op-ed in The New York Times, “My Plan to Safely Reopen America.” He set three standards for reopening.
First, Biden said, “We have to get the number of new cases of the disease down significantly.” Second, there needs to be “widespread, easily available, and prompt” testing. “We should be running multiple times the number of diagnostic tests we’re performing right now,” Biden wrote. Third, hospitals have to be “ready for flare-ups of the disease that may occur when economic activity expands again.”
One revealing point in his Times piece was that Biden never used the word “states,” as in, governors can best address the situations in their states. Nor did Biden refer to mayors or other local government officials. For him, as for some top Democrats, reopening after the virus is mostly a national, top-down, one-size-fits-all issue.
So what of his three conditions?
Biden’s first condition — that new cases of the disease be falling — is already happening in many parts of the country. Governors have, in fact, cited it as part of their reason to partially reopen economic life.
Biden’s third condition — that hospitals be ready for flare-ups — is also already happening in many places. Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt recently noted that there are 300 hospitalizations for coronavirus in his state and 4,600 hospital beds for virus patients.
It is Biden’s second condition — that the current number of tests must be multiplied by some number before reopening — that has not yet been met, even though the number of tests performed in the U.S. is now nearing 6 million.
This week, Biden published a Medium post in which he argued that there is still a “massive shortfall” in testing. “We want our country to get moving and healthy again,” Biden said, “but we must take the necessary, rational steps, grounded in science, to do so safely.” That appears to suggest he would not reopen any activity currently shut down until the “massive shortfall” is eliminated.
Biden has proposed what he calls a Pandemic Testing Board — a national panel created by the president and Congress — to “oversee a nationwide campaign to provide both diagnostic and antibody tests.” He did not say what level of testing he believed to be necessary before reopening could occur. Nor did he say whether he would have a single standard apply nationwide — to the hard-hit New York metropolitan area and also, say, to far less hard-hit Vermont and Montana. Nor did Biden define what level of safety he would require before recommending reopening.
What that means, in effect, is this: Although Biden has remained quiet on what he would actually do as president in terms of the timing of reopening, he has suggested a position that could be used to justify delaying reopening virtually indefinitely. Indeed, there are some in the public debate who want to see the U.S. economy shut down for significantly longer than it already has been. Setting an unattainable goal for testing would be one way to ensure the lockdown continues.
For all his pledges to do this or that, Biden has not clearly said when, if he were in charge, he would reopen parts of the economy. Where? What parts? How quickly? As a candidate and as a former official not currently in charge of anything, he doesn’t really have to say. It’s much easier to just accuse President Trump of doing it all wrong.
But when to reopen is a critical decision in an enormously consequential time. There is a lot of debate about it. A lot of Americans, Democrats and Republicans, would like to hear what Joe Biden would do.