A football game in Columbus, Ohio, last week.Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
Whenever I visited my local coffee shop this summer, it did not allow any customers inside. I ordered a cup from a worker standing at a table blocking the front door and came back a few minutes later to pick it up.
In recent weeks, though, the shop’s setup has changed. I now walk inside and order. Often, there are a few other customers lingering nearby, waiting for their coffee.
Nationwide, there are many other versions of this story. Professional sports leagues, for example, weren’t allowing any fans in the stands for much of the summer. This weekend, thousands of people attended college and pro football games.
From a public-health perspective, these changes don’t make a whole lot of sense: Pandemic restrictions across the U.S. are now less stringent than they were in the summer even though the infection rate is much higher.
How did this happen? State and local governments loosened their policies as the virus receded in August and September — but then left those looser rules in place. (And the federal government has shown little leadership.)
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Perhaps the No. 1 question about the pandemic in coming weeks is how aggressively state and local governments reinstate restrictions.
“With the level of community spread we have in Michigan and that many other states are now facing, the only way to bring Covid down is state action — or a terrible loss of life.”
Robert Gordon, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, told me yesterday.
Several states have announced new steps in the past few days. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the temporary closing of indoor dining, casinos, movie theaters and in-person classes at high schools and colleges. Chicago, Philadelphia and most of California have also reimposed restrictions.
Most of the new restrictions have come from Democratic officials, like Whitmer, but this isn’t a simple partisan issue.
The Republican governors of Iowa and North Dakota have issued mask mandates over the past few days. And in The Wall Street Journal, the Republican health care experts Scott Gottlieb and Mark McClellan wrote an op-ed called “It’s Now Up to Governors to Slow the Spread.”
“At least while infections are widespread and surging, governors and local leaders should mandate the use of masks and impose clear and consistent plans to restrict gatherings.”
Gottlieb and McClellan wrote.
Still, most states, whether run by Democratic or Republican governors, have resisted taking strict steps, knowing that many Americans are tired of the pandemic. In the meantime, infections keep rising, and deaths have begun rising in recent days, too.
The medium-term future looks ever more optimistic, now that both Moderna and Pfizer have reported encouraging vaccine trials. But the short term will depend to a great degree on what happens in state capitals. For now, many states — like Ohio, New York and New Jersey — are announcing new restrictions that fall well short of what public-health experts say is necessary to crush the spread of the virus.