Editorial: Density is not your friend

Last weekend, as the sun came out and warmed the land around us, people left their homes and went outdoors. They went shopping, they bought ice cream, they walked around Greenport Village and downtown Riverhead. For a weekend, it seemed like a victory party was underway and that COVID-19, the destroyer of economies, businesses big and small and people’s lives, had finally been vanquished.

Alas, although predictable, it was premature. Two months of self-isolation and the warm sun brought out crowds across the North Fork. The sight was alarming for many people, including Greenport Village Trustee Mary Bess Phillips. Early Sunday morning she wrote a guest column for The Suffolk Times describing crowded sidewalks over the weekend and a lack of separation between people. 

Her concerns serve as a reminder that the virus — which has so far caused billions of dollars in economic losses and, as of Tuesday morning, claimed nearly 70,000 lives nationwide — will do even more harm if we end social distancing standards prematurely.

In other parts of the country, last weekend brought out protesters who oppose the shutting down of the American economy and the states’ mandates that people to shelter at home. Outside the statehouse in Michigan, for example, well-armed angry white men in masks and bulletproof vests, with assault weapons and extra magazines for their weapons, stood guard, as if waiting for the first shots to be fired in a second American revolution.

At a protest in Commack on Friday, hundreds gathered to protest the shutting down of New York’s economy. One protestor carried a sign that read, “This is America. Not Nazi Germany. Open up Now. Trump 2020.” 

Nazi flags were photographed at some protests around the country. One protester was photographed carrying a sign comparing the shutdown of our economy to the Auschwitz death camp — malevolence and stupidity wrapped in one. One can only imagine how many Americans would react if a similar-sized group of black men armed with assault weapons occupied a government building. 

It has been said that we are in the second or third inning of this COVID crisis. So much damage has been done it’s hard to think there could be six or seven more innings still to play out. So many deaths, but also many ruined businesses — and countless Americans who won’t be able to pay their bills and will have to pull their children out of colleges and universities because they can’t cover the tuition payments. 

One federal agency is predicting nearly 3,000 coronavirus deaths per day by June 1. Another projection estimates that over 135,000 Americans will have died from the virus by August. 

What will this summer be like — on eastern Long Island and across the country — if half the businesses that were open just eight weeks ago are shuttered, if restaurants can only stay open by admitting far fewer customers and if sports stadiums are empty of fans. The news seems even more grim today than it did just a few weeks ago.

On Monday, a very cautious Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlined additional details about into how a plan to reopen New York would unfold in different regions of the state and presented a chart showing that no region currently meets all the criteria. The new schedule pushes opening dates for construction into early June and for restaurants even later in the month. 

The economy must be reopened — but how and when? At what cost? A long line at an ice cream parlor could endanger lives — including those of family at risk who remained at home, once those customers return. 

Are we to accept a spike in infections and deaths as a consequence of reopening our economy? As Gov. Cuomo said, “Remember, density is not your friend. Large gatherings are not your friend. That’s where the virus tends to spread.”

We must continue to be cautious, to listen to scientists and medical professionals, even as we must do what we can from a distance to help local businesses survive. We want them there when we emerge from this horror.