Science

COVID Was Never “Under Control” in America

We need to remember this as we proceed with reopening.

Steven Mnuchin sits at a table and raises his hand while speaking. A man sits behind him, wearing a face mask.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks at a Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee hearing on Wednesday in D.C. Pool/Getty Images

If we’ve learned anything in the past several months, it probably ought to be that the coronavirus is hard to contain. We likely won’t truly be done with it until a critical mass of people are vaccinated. Or at least, some of us have learned that. On Wednesday, in making a case for restaurants opening up indoor seating, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin suggested otherwise: “I don’t see why on an indoor basis, socially distanced, that restaurants can’t be serving indoors,” he said. “Particularly in parts of the country where COVID is under control.” He also seemed to not understand why indoor dining is a particular point of focus:

Let’s set aside Vox journalist Aaron Rupar’s correct point that people dining indoors is scientifically more dangerous for COVID spread than people dining outside. Mnuchin’s other suggestion is that the virus isn’t really an issue in some places of the country. He thinks that there are some places where case counts are low (this is objectively true) and that in these places we can begin loosening restrictions on activities not slowly and thoughtfully, but significantly.

It sounds reasonable enough. But it’s worth it to parse what exactly he means, and what he implies, when he notes that there are places where “COVID is under control.” “Under control” indicates that some entity is responsible for successfully getting the virus to a point where it has difficulty spreading from person to person—and keeping it that way. But the places that are not experiencing outbreaks in America are largely the result of luck, not smart policy to control spread. The hard work to control the virus in certain places has tended to happen too late, and only after it already got out of hand. But the idea that we can have the virus “under control” without doing work, like refraining from meals out even as spread appears low, is a fantasy that the Trump administration has been pushing for the length of the pandemic.

“We have it totally under control,” Trump said of the pandemic on Jan. 22, according to a roundup of 50 times the president has downplayed the pandemic, collected by the Washington Post last month. Those kinds of comments continued as it became clear that the virus was not under control globally or in the U.S. “It’s something that we have tremendous control over,” Trump said on March 15, days after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic and the States braced for lockdown measures. On other occasions, Trump did what Mnuchin is now doing here: admitting that the virus is a problem for some areas like New York, while suggesting that other spots in the country are going to be just fine because it’s under control. “Our states, generally speaking, it’s like lots of different countries all over. We have—many of those countries are doing a phenomenal job,” he said on April 2, while blowing off expert advice that Americans needed to take social distancing more seriously. “This is going to get worse before it gets better, for sure,” Anthony Fauci said that same day.

It did get a lot worse. And it’s still getting worse now, particularly in places that have so far not had notable issues with the virus and are starting to lift stay-at-home orders. Case counts in the past week have been the highest they’ve been all pandemic in over a dozen states. Daily cases have doubled in Arizona, where, an analysis in Vox notes, there aren’t enough contact tracers to track down people who may have been exposed to the virus, and the state has recommended—but not enforced—measures like mask wearing.

If these examples remind us of anything, it’s that the virus is not, currently, under control in America. Also, it should remind us that “under control” isn’t a static stage of the pandemic we can reach; “under control” is a series of incredibly monotonous actions we constantly have to take and not give up on even when things are going well. That doesn’t mean we’re doomed to live with lockdowns forever, but it does suggest that lulls in case numbers can be short-lived. Even when we are doing everything right, success will feel like a holding pattern, not a victory. So when you hear that the virus is “under control,” remember that your reaction shouldn’t be to wonder what that means you get to do now but a prompt to ask what we all have to do to keep it that way for a little bit longer.