Two reopenings

Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live will begin a phased reopening today. (We’re also anticipating the possibility of riots, but that’s another story.) Other Maryland counties reopened late last month, but the Wuhan coronavirus hit our county harder than nearly all others in the state.

Maryland has experienced 422 deaths from the virus per one million people. That’s well above the national number — 321. It’s almost identical to France’s per capita death count.

In Montgomery County, things have been bleaker. We’re at nearly 600 deaths per one million. That’s slightly worse than Spain, Italy, and the UK. Indeed, it’s worse than any country in Europe other than Belgium.

Meanwhile, in Hawaii, my friend Bill Otis reports that the island where he lives part of the year — the Big Island — is also reopening, partially, today. So is the rest of the state .

Hawaii has the fewest deaths from the virus per one million people of any state in America — just 12. That’s lower than in Greece, which is considered the biggest coronavirus success story in Europe. It’s only slightly higher than in Japan, which is considered one of the world’s two or three biggest success story.

Moreover, nearly all the deaths from the virus in Hawaii have occurred on the island of Oahu where Honolulu is located. The Wuhan coronavirus has been a non-factor on the Big Island. As of yesterday, there had been only 81 cases, one hospitalization, and no deaths.

Given the numbers I’ve just cited, how can it be that Montgomery County and the Big Island of Hawaii are reopening on the same day?

In my view, the Montgomery County lockdown was justified, although there’s room for argument as to how long it should have lasted. But I doubt that a lockdown was ever justified for Hawaii’s Big Island, and it’s ludicrous that the lockdown lasted until now.

Businesses on the Big Island, as elsewhere in Hawaii, rely heavily on tourism. They were always going to take a big hit because of the corornvirus’ effect on travel to Hawaii. But the lockdown meant that locals could not patronize most businesses, either.

The effect of this double whammy will probably be devastating.

I’m a coronavirus fatalist to this extent: Given our state of preparedness, which was similar to most of the non-Asian world, when the virus hit we were destined to suffer a huge number of deaths and a massive economic toll. Different policies could have produced a somewhat different mix of health and economic outcomes — some marginally better than others. But America was screwed in any scenario.

In my view, the one big thing we could have done differently that we can know would have produced better outcomes is more tailoring of responses to specific sets of conditions. Nursing homes represent the most obvious example.

The other obvious example is tailoring lockdown policy to local conditions. America responded with something too close to “one size fits all,” as exemplified by Montgomery County, Maryland and the Big Island of Hawaii. With more tailoring, we probably could have achieved significantly better economic outcomes in many parts of the country with very little extra cost on the health side of the equation.