The ‘trial and error’ phase

Outside a bar in Vilnius

Lithuania.Mindaugas Kulbis/Associated Press

The world is entering a very risky period with the coronavirus — and many health experts and ordinary people are nervous.

The reopening has begun: Parts of Pennsylvania and North Carolina are relaxing their stay-at-home orders today. France will begin reopening next week. Similar moves are happening elsewhere.

Yet there are still huge unanswered questions about the virus. How many people have it, and, by extension, how deadly is it? How often do children spread it? Are people who’ve had it immune from getting it again?

In the United States, there are also unmet benchmarks — which epidemiologists say should be met before reopening. The U.S. is testing fewer people per capita than other countries, and the outbreak is still growing in many states that are starting to reopen.

So how bad will reopening turn out to be?

The most likely scenario, many experts believe, is that the U.S. will spark new outbreaks by ending lockdowns without a more solid plan. That, in turn, could have tragic consequences, with thousands of avoidable deaths.

President Trump has chosen to open up nonetheless. As The Times’s Max Fisher notes, Trump is “among the few leaders to push for reopening as cases continue rising in many parts of the country.” His administration has rejected reopening guidelines from government scientists, calling them too strict.

Max has a useful — if chilling — way of thinking about the new phase: It’s the “trial-and-error” phase, in which different countries take different approaches and the world witnesses the results.

Lithuania, betting that outdoor activity is safer, is blocking off streets for outdoor restaurant service. California is encouraging curbside pickup instead. Denmark is opening schools to younger children (who may be less contagious), while Germany is opening for older children (who may do better following instructions).

“Few want to acknowledge it, but these first phases of reopening are big experiments meant to test the unknowns,” Max told me. “It’s a dangerous game, and it’s worth being cleareyed about the risks we’re all taking on.”

The New York Times Morning Briefing