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ZooMontana in Billings, Mont., is scheduled to reopen to members May 4 and to the general public May 11, allowing in up to 500 visitors a day, which is 10 percent of its capacity.
This small event by a small zoo (the only one in Montana) is symbolic of America beginning a great experiment in managing the coronavirus pandemic while reopening society.
Since most of the zoo is outdoors, visitors can socially distance themselves and minimize the threat of spreading the virus.
This decision for Billings, which has a population of 109,000, will not work everywhere.
A similar hypothetical decision to reopen the Central Park Zoo in the middle of Manhattan would be disastrous. The Manhattan population is more than 1.6 million, while New York City’s is around 8.4 million. What works in one place may not work in another.
In fact, the entire state of Montana (147,040 square miles) has a population of just over 1 million. This is less than the population of Manhattan, an island that covers 22.7 square miles.
Montana has had just over 440 confirmed cases of COVID-15 – the disease caused by the coronavirus – and 14 deaths. New York City has had over 150,000 confirmed cases, with more than 16,000 deaths.
Clearly, a policy that makes sense for Montana would be a nightmare in New York City.
However, the initial one-size-fits-all approach to shutting down America was as inappropriate for Montana as reopening would be for New York City. America is a huge country, and there are many different characteristics depending on where you are and what you are doing.
Montana’s ability to make a local decision based on local circumstances is a tribute to President Trump’s move to decentralize the reopening process to the states and their governors.
Having a Washington bureaucrat decide when every zoo in America could open would be an invitation to calamity. The same would be true if Washington bureaucrats had the power to decide when to reopen every restaurant, bowling alley and beauty shop.
Christopher DeMuth made a good point in a brilliant article for The Wall Street Journal headlined "Trump Rewrites the Book on Emergencies:"
“Washington’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic is upending one of the most durable patterns of American politics," DeMuth wrote. "Throughout history, national emergencies have led to a more powerful and centralized federal government and to the transfer of federal power from Congress to the executive branch. This time, the federal response rests largely on state and local government and private enterprise, with a wave of deregulation clearing the way. The Trump administration has seized no new powers, and Congress has stayed energetically in the game.”
DeMuth added that “as soon as the magnitude of the epidemic was grasped, it was managed and subdued through vigorous localism, private enterprise and professional dedication, with the federal government providing essential national leadership but staying within its constitutional rails. ... Diversified centers of authority and initiative aren’t luxuries. They are the keys to resilience in the face of emergencies large and small.”
Some states will reopen cleverly and with minimum problems. Other states will reopen clumsily – and have more health problems. Yet other states will try to avoid reopening while they suffer growing societal and economic pain.
The contrast between the successful states and the locked-down states will bring enormous pressure on governors who are slower to reopen their communities.
Ideally, a clearinghouse will be developed for best practices at the state and local levels. This same clearinghouse can also keep track of worst practices, which may be even more important to our awareness.
Even though there is real risk involved in beginning to reopen America, we have no choice. We cannot be frozen for months by the threat of the virus. Our society and economy will collapse, our people will grow ungovernable, and our capacity to work and innovate will be shattered.
Furthermore, if the experts are right about a potential second wave of the virus in the fall, it is vital that we learn to manage it through containment rather than risk a second round of closing everything.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, made the threat clear recently when he this week: "We will have coronavirus in the fall. I am convinced of that because of the degree [of] transmissibility that it has, the global nature. What happens with that will depend on how we are able to contain it when it occurs."
By this fall, we must have new therapies, tests, and abilities to contain the virus and track infected people without halting society again.
As we look around the country, we begin to see glimmers of hope. The president has announced U.S. National Parks will be reopened. Different states are starting to move toward reopening. Alabama, Georgia, Montana, and Oklahoma are among those that have outlined plans to reopen restaurants in the next few days.
Inch by inch, we will learn how to rebuild society while reducing the threat of the pandemic. President Trump’s decision to place the governors in charge of reopening will prove to be one of the most important decisions of his presidency.
To read, hear, and watch more of Newt Gingrich’s commentary, visit Gingrich360.com.