Quarantines are Here and Lockdowns Could Follow

By John Banks

In early April — which was only 12 weeks ago, but feels like a lifetime ago — we said in these pages that domestic travel bans were highly likely for the United States.

We further said that, due to variations in how infections would spread, the U.S. would be sorted into “green zones” and “red zones” (or something to that effect). The green zones would then have reason to keep red-zone travelers out.

Fast forward to late June, and the surprising travel-ban news turns out to be international.

European Union countries “are prepared to block Americans from entering,” the New York Times reports, “because the United States has failed to control the scourge.”

America would be lumped in with Russia and Brazil — two other nations with uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreaks — as essentially a giant red zone, with potential to upset the EU’s hard-won green-zone status.

But what about domestic travel bans? They aren’t here yet, but they could be coming, along with rolling lockdowns and new shelter-in-place measures.

We are already seeing an early version of this, via quarantine advisories imposed by “green zone” governors in the New York tri-state area.

Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, announced on June 24 that travelers from red-zone states — meaning states in the midst of uncontrolled outbreaks, as designated by their case data — would need to self-quarantine for two weeks.

The restrictions would also apply to New York residents returning from trips to virus-stricken states. New Jersey and Connecticut are also participating in this “joint travel advisory.”

The eight states on New York’s quarantine list, as of this writing, are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.

On Thursday, June 25, the governor of Texas announced plans to “pause” the Texas reopening schedule due to rising case rates and severe strain on the hospital system. Also on that day, Apple closed an additional 14 stores in Florida due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

For much of the country, America’s grand reopening is in turmoil, and may in fact be reversing itself.

New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, meanwhile, are implementing quarantine advisories because, like the European Union, those states have already been hit hard by the virus, and battled through a severe spate of outbreaks, and fought hard to contain the rate of spread. Their green-zone status thus came at great cost.

The challenge with being a green zone — meaning, an area where the rate of spread is under control — is that the vast majority of the population remains vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. This means a critical mass influx of novel coronavirus carriers could tip a fragile green zone right back into the red.

It isn’t clear how strictly the quarantines will be enforced. But if New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut start to see an unacceptable number of cases generated by out-of-state visitors, lightly enforced rules could morph into outright restrictions or bans, much as Sweden now faces travel restrictions from its green-zone Nordic neighbors.

Then, too, if the current pace of outbreaks continues in states like Arizona, Texas, and Florida — and that is what will happen, if we are indeed back in exponential growth territory — new rolling lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders will almost certainly follow.

Powerful individuals at the federal and state level, from the Secretary of the Treasury to various state governors, have said repeatedly that “we cannot shut down the economy again.”

But it’s important to remember that shutting down the U.S. economy via shelter-in-place measures was not a federal decision in the first place. It was a call made at the state level, by the individual governors of each state.

Then, too, if hospital systems are again subjected to severe strain, the reality of a dire medical emergency will overcome political resistance to avoiding new lockdowns.

This is because, when a hospital system is flooded with new patients, or otherwise ceases to function, fatality rates shoot through the roof, and not just due to COVID-19.

If hospitals are full to bursting, and medical care providers burdened to a point of exhaustion, ordinary ailments stop getting treated. At the same time, if hospitals are overflowing with COVID-19 cases, local citizens fear going to the hospital even if they need medical attention.

In a scenario like that, an ambulance might take an hour or two to arrive, if it arrives at all, and people start dying of normally treatable elements like heart attacks or strokes or allergic reactions. Society doesn’t function when the medical system is strained to the point of breaking.

The reality, still, is that America is at war with this virus. We don’t get to decide when the war is over, and the virus doesn’t negotiate. We can only defeat the virus, or else endure its onslaught. And right now, the virus is raging again in various red-zone states, with new daily case numbers at record highs.

The market can’t ignore the virus either — not forever, at any rate — because pandemic reality is also economic reality, by way of consumer psychology and direct impact on business revenues and earnings.

The economic assumption that we were “done” with the virus never made sense, based on a simple read of the science and the data.

It now makes less sense than ever, as the virus wave (and it is still the first wave, which never left) picks up speed and intensity in new hotspots across the country.