It is time to (carefully) reopen

This past weekend, something broke in my house that needed fixing.

Sunday, I decided to venture out into the vast unknown hellscape now known as “reality” to venture to one of our illustrious essential businesses — a home improvement store — in order to acquire the necessary handful of items that I needed to repair said broken thing.

When I arrived, I was more than a little taken aback when I found a full parking lot. The kind of thing you would usually find on a lazy Sunday in spring. No sign, really, of anything abnormal.

Water Street in downtown Gardiner was nearly deserted on Monday. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

As I walked in, my impression of an unchanged status quo was strengthened. People walked the aisles without much trouble. To my left, a man who was buying so much wood that I was fairly certain he was using his quarantine time to build a new house from scratch. To my right, a woman with at least eight gallons of paint, as well as brushes and rollers.

As I walked to the middle of the store to get my needed item, I saw people picking out screws, looking at patio furniture, looking at drywall, and studying new hardwood floor samples with great interest.

In other words, it looked like it always did in the store.

As I was going through checkout, I was approached by one of the employees — I’m going to call him Chet, in order to protect his identity — who studied me intently before asking if I was, indeed, me. It turns out he is a listener to my morning radio program in Portland, and thought it was really neat that he saw me out in “the real world.”

I asked him the standard greeting we are now obligated to say to one another on the rare occasions we interact with other human beings: “So, how you holding up through all this?”

Chet said he was fine, but he was let go from his second job so he wasn’t quite sure how he would be able to make ends meet for the foreseeable future. Luckily for him, he said, he was able to still work at the big box store, so he was doing better than a lot of his friends. He gave me an “elbow high five” and left me to my social isolation.

My newly made friend is indeed fortunate that the store was deemed an essential business. I can only assume that designation was made because the government believes that tools and materials in a store like that are potentially necessary in case a pipe bursts in your house, your water heater explodes, or your basement floods.

Yet nearly everyone shopping in that “essential” store Sunday was there for “non-essential” reasons. Chet had also told me that he thought business might have been up, if anything.

That’s probably because of a demand shift, honestly. With large chain stores open and local flooring and interior stores like the Paul White Company in Portland closed, people who want to buy flooring are simply going to the chain store instead of where they might have gone before.

Yet somehow, despite these scofflaws making their non-essential trips to look at flooring, Maine has managed to respond effectively to the threat of coronavirus, and has unquestionably “flattened the curve.”

As of Wednesday, there have been 907 total confirmed cases, with the current number of active infections numbering 413 and 144 people have been hospitalized at some point. There are currently 314 critical care beds in Maine, and with 18 of those beds going to patients with COVID-19, 170 of those beds are available right now. We have 333 ventilators, and 277 of them are available, and only 10 of them are being used for patients with COVID-19 right now.

What we’ve done has clearly worked, and that’s great. Our actions have stopped the healthcare system from being overwhelmed.

But our actions have also, for no logical reason that I can arrive at, resulted in the large open-air park next to my house being barricaded, while big box stores remain open. A park that in all my years here, I have barely encountered anyone at when I have visited.

They’ve also resulted in a crashing economy, unemployment could be approaching 20 percent, and a massive spike in mental health challenges, with a 34 percent growth in the prescription of antidepressants.

No one is suggesting that we flip a switch from the restrictions we have been living with “back to normal.” But without question, it is time to gently begin to try to reopen our society. Deliberately. Intelligently. With care. And with a whole hell of a lot more common sense than the counterintuitive ways we decided who was essential and who was not. It’s time.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.