Even before massive national protests, COVID-19 was set to bend American lives into the “new normal” social-distancing lifestyle for months to come. If public-health officials’ warnings come true that packed streets will generate a pandemic resurgence, the isolating phases of self-quarantine could last still longer.
Reopening will happen by degrees, as we have been warned. But a look down that road scares me a great deal. Three big moments we’ve long known are coming have the power to upend how we live. And we’re underprepared for every one of them.
A long slog lies ahead. A Harvard study published May 22 in Science magazine found “prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022.” The whiplash of returning to public spaces — then rushing back into hermetic existence — is survivable. Unpredictable tumults, including massive protests, will require careful responses. These concerns are myopic, though. The focus ought to be on reaching restoration’s milestones equipped for success.
The first is the resumption of school this fall. When Gov. Jay Inslee ordered school buildings closed March 13, it was clear that the spring semester would be a piecemeal education, at best. Planning should have begun then for the next year. A lost semester is one thing, but 18 months of regression is unacceptable.
Instead, school leaders were preoccupied by how to cobble together spring lessons. The public kindergarten student in my house has no less than five website passwords in her distance-learning regimen. Meanwhile, it took two months just to convene state government’s 123-member “Reopening Washington Schools 2020-21 Workgroup.” No one knows today which of seven possible ways to orchestrate classes students may endure this fall, including when classes might start or whether every grade will halt simultaneously.
From that murky schedule, let’s move on to a date certain: Wednesday, Nov. 4, the day after Election Day. As other states hastily encourage mail-in balloting, the prospect of Nov. 4 dawning with the presidential race unclear is becoming ever more likely.
Washingtonians are used to the slow counting of mail-in elections. But our state has long been shaded blue by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report and other forecasters. Increased absentee voting in swing states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan among them — could drag out uncertainty.
At that point, two well-established factors seem destined to collide: President Donald Trump’s undermining of government systems and the tendency for late-cast ballots to skew liberal, as shown in Seattle city elections last autumn. Elections officials are already contemplating various nightmare scenarios, such as court challenges to voting or natural disasters. But tabletop exercises will only get us so far; deeply partisan court fights loom. The prospect of upheaval overshadowing American democracy is a terrifying Nov. 4 possibility — regardless of which side appears ahead.
For one last look at the crystal ball, there’s the to-be-determined date when thousands of Seattle workers return to offices. For commuting workers, this means a daily journey through a land of no good choices. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now encourages driving alone to work. That’s bad news for greater Seattle, which has led the nation in shifting from cars to trains, buses and ferries. Pandemic mass transit is both a Petri dish of potential contagion with limited seating and a massive expense cash-strapped governments may slash.
Kevin Futhey, the executive director of Commute Seattle, offers sobering math about the CDC’s advice: The 300,000 downtown Seattle workers have less than 100,000 parking spots available.
“If everyone’s choosing to drive, that just won’t work from a pure numbers game,” he said. “And the traffic would be horrible.”
Roads have long been jammed, to the point where the 58-minute Sounder rail trip from Tacoma to King Street Station routinely beats a 90-ish-minute negotiation of the Interstate 5 gauntlet. The West Seattle Bridge’s long-term closure shifts another 100,000 daily drivers to limited-capacity roads. Even though tech giants like Amazon and Zillow already announced telecommuting will last for months, other companies will make their own calls.
“Cities like Seattle (and San Francisco, Boston, NY, Chicago etc.) where a significant proportion of commuters use transit to get to work may be slower to repopulate their commercial districts than cities like Houston, (or Nashville, Boise or Cleveland) where a majority of people commute to work alone in their cars,” Kate Joncas, the former Seattle deputy mayor who now works with the Berkeley-based planning and design firm MIG, wrote to me in an email this week.
These inflection points are when three pillars of modern America — education, elections and employment — can become quagmires if we aren’t diligent about preparations. It’s time to see evidence that our elected leaders have the proper farsighted goals in mind, rather than stage-managing today’s debates.