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Illustration by Security Management

Europe and United States Ease COVID-19 Shutdown Measures

Western nations are easing some coronavirus-related shutdown measures, allowing certain businesses to reopen. But public health experts say the reopenings could cause a rise in COVID-19 cases if social distancing and preventative measures are not maintained because there is still not reliable treatment or vaccine for the disease.

Italy began allowing millions of people to return to work this week, ending the longest coronavirus lockdown in Europe by allowing construction sites and manufacturing operations to resume, along with parks reopening.

“But Europeans’ new-found freedoms are limited as officials are wary of setting off a second wave of infections,” according to the Associated Press. “In Italy, mourners were allowed to attend funerals, with services limited to 15 people. Restaurants scrubbed floors in preparation for take-out service. Sit-down service is several weeks away.”

France is also preparing to ease some restrictions beginning on Monday, 11 May, and will use video surveillance systems to monitor if people are wearing masks and maintaining a 3-meter distance from each other. Officials will reopen primary schools and most businesses next week, and in June will open cafes, restaurants, and secondary schools in half of the country that has much lower infection rates than Paris and northeastern France.

“Masks must be worn on public transport, which will be disinfected at least once a day, and stores will have the right to ask shoppers to wear them,” the BBC reports. “Social distancing rules will also stay in place.”

The United Kingdom is also expected to announce some lightened lockdown restrictions over the weekend, Germany said its football league—the Bundesliga—will resume on 16 May, and Greece plans to reopen its museums in June to help boost its economy.

Across the Atlantic in the United States, which has the highest number of confirmed positive cases at 1.2 million, the Trump Administration shelved guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that outlined how to reopen the country. The 17-page report was designed to help faith leaders, business owners, educators, and state and local officials as they begin to reopen.

“The guidance contained detailed advice for making site-specific decisions related to reopening schools, restaurants, summer camps, churches, day care centers, and other institutions,” according to the Associated Press, which obtained a copy of the guidance. “It had been widely shared within the CDC and included detailed ‘decision trees,’ flow charts to be used by local officials to think through different scenarios.”

Instead, U.S. governors have been left to handle the decision themselves of when and how to reopen. Nearly 40 U.S. states have made moves to ease some of their restrictions, by are doing so in a patchwork method that may make it difficult for employers—especially those with a multistate presence—to implement.

Recognizing this, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce created its “State-by-State Business Reopening Guidance” to help track the requirements and provide the latest information to employers.

“In some states, for example, masks are required; in others, they’re suggested,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce explained. “In some states, mask requirements apply only to employees, while in others, customers must wear them, too. In some states employers are required to screen employees before shifts begin; in others it’s required after each shift. In still others, it’s not required at all.”

The chamber also sent a letter last week to President Trump, governors, mayors, and county officials, urging them to work together on consistent rules for reopening the economy.

“The economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic presents unprecedented challenges for American employers who are working hard to protect their employees and customers as they navigate a safe and sustainable return to business,” said Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a statement. “It’s absolutely critical for employers to have uniform guidelines that can be practically implemented as they move to reopen.”

Security professionals are also being asked to play a role in the decision-making process to reopen organizations by providing situational analysis on the state of the pandemic and the risks to their people, infrastructure, clients, and suppliers.

“The business should not wait for governments to announce an easing of restrictions; they should understand the parameters used by government, track the same data, and forecast where and when restrictions will be lifted to get ahead of the game,” wrote Paul Mercer, founder of HawkSight Security Risk Management, for Security Management. “To forecast where and when operations are most likely to be resumed, the security function must effectively monitor not only the ongoing pandemic but the emerging security threats that are becoming all to clear to see with civil unrest and crime on the increase worldwide.”

Health experts have also raised concerns that some U.S. states are moving to quickly to reopen because they have not met the four criteria laid out to conduct this process safely: a decline in new cases for at least two weeks; ability to perform contact tracing on any new cases; sufficient testing to diagnose any individual with symptoms; and a healthcare system with the capacity to treat all patients—not just COVID-19 cases.

“It’s clear to me we are at a critical moment of this fight,” said Caitlin Rivers, a Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist said in a U.S. House Committee on Appropriations hearing earlier this week. “We risk complacency in accepting the preventable deaths of 2,000 Americans each day, we risk complacency in accepting that our healthcare workers do not have what they need to do their jobs safely, and we risk complacency in recognizing that without continued vigilance we will again create the conditions that led to us being the worst-affected country in the world.”

Health officials are closely watching how Asian countries are reopening their economies, since that part of the world was where the coronavirus first began spreading. 

In Japan, for instance, the island of Hokkaido implemented a state of emergency in February and locked down, causing the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases to drastically drop.

“But it wasn't just infections that dropped; over the next month, agriculture and tourism business also dried up, and Hokkaido's governor decided to ease social restrictions," according to TIME. "However, compliance with limits on social interaction after weeks of sequestering was harder this time around. Within a month, Hokkaido's new COVID-19 infections jumped by 80 percent, and the governor had to reinstate lockdown policies.”

Only by having the ability to suppress cases quickly through testing, contact tracing, and social distancing measures, will jurisidictions be able to safely reopen while the world waits for a vaccine to be developed. 

“Even in the hardest-hit places [in the United States], fewer than 1 in 10 people have been infected,” said Dr. Tom Freiden, president and CEO of Reslove to Save Lives and former director of the CDC. “So not only could COVID-19 come roaring back, but it could get five times or close to 10 times worse than it is now.”