With surprising acquiescence, we went home. We relinquished some of our civil rights in exchange for safety. A month later, some few somewhere are demonstrating. Other countries, such as Sweden, are attempting to ride the pandemic without closings, social distancing or masks. Will their death toll be higher? Have they swapped a higher risk of death for the necessity of work and the dignity of sitting at the bedside of a sick loved one and attending funerals? How those things are weighed, when the facts are in, is unknown. However, now it is April 21, 2020.
We are all anxious to return to normal. The question is, how? What makes it healthy to return? If we open businesses, what makes it safe for workers and customers? In fact, if we open, will they come? Is there more pent-up desire or more sustained fear?
There is general agreement that we need tests to gauge the danger and calculate who and how many are symptomatic or asymptomatic transmitters. The president apparently feels it is the governors’ job to test adequately, and the governors feel they cannot adequately test without federal support. That is not an action plan; that is an impasse.
To gauge when to open a community, experts look at the statistics in that community. Have cases peaked? Are they declining? However, the Berkshires is unique in that everything we open brings in people from other states. It is the essence of Berkshire business that we serve the outlanders. We need to be aware of their statistics as well.
These are difficult times, and these are hard decisions. And it gets worse. Staying home flattens the curve and slows the spread. That allows medical services to keep pace with the escalated need during a pandemic. However, it does something else. In saving lives and saving many from illness, it increases the number vulnerable to the illness. When the doors are open and we all step out, we do not have immunity individually and we have not achieved herd immunity.
Herd immunity requires a percentage of a population to have contracted the disease. Some say that percentage is 50 percent. By decreasing the number of cases through social distancing, we also decrease the chances for herd immunity. We are reliant upon a vaccine.
There seems to be general agreement that density is a problem. Many looked around and fled to safety here. Our semi-rural area is certainly not densely populated, but neither does it have adequate medical services. It may be a good place to avoid illness, but there are better places once sick.
There is another form of density — call it temporary density. That is achieved by events and gatherings at restaurants, museums and theaters. One measure of a business’ success is number: the more customers, the more successful the business — just not now. Now, if you sell more tickets or attract more diners or spectators, by necessity, the business is closed.
Today, the Berkshires is shuttered. Each day another cultural organization announces closing the 2020 season. They state as their reason a resolve to do what is best for the community and to preserve its health.
To date, Tanglewood is silent. People close to the Boston Symphony Orchestra say BSO is waiting to hear if the governor prevents its opening. Absent that, Tanglewood searches for a way to open and make the audience and the musicians safe. In ordinary times, BSO could do as it pleased. It only closed once in its history — during World War II. Will this time of the pandemic be its second closing? That is not officially known, and there is another exception to the wave of closings.
Summer sleepover camps are still advertising in surrounding states for campers. It is an unfortunate exception. Camp is as dense and tightly knit as can be. The kids bunk together, swim, shower and eat together in common spaces. They also enjoy contact sports.
There are approximately 17 sleepover camps in the Berkshires. Each has from 150 to 450 campers under 15 years old. That is approximately 5,100 children. With a ratio of one counselor to five campers, that would be 1,000 counselors from 18 years and up — 6,100 children and young adults coming into the Berkshires. Add to that administrative staff.
All 6,000-7,000 come from out of state. The campers are entering a distinctly older population of approximately 126,000. The number that contracted COVID-19 changes daily, but the last recorded number was 1,275, or 1 percent of the population — not a percentage likely to create herd immunity, so a vulnerable population.
The campers are here from four to eight weeks. The combination of factors has a larger, potentially negative impact on this small community than spring break had on Florida. Even if not a single resident is infected by a single camper, one infected camper could infect all his fellow campers. Then where could they be treated? Berkshire Medical Center has 302 beds.
Let’s call it reentry. This is a time we are all anxious to reenter our normal lives — to work, see friends, attend events. What we have to consider are the trade-offs. In the face of a pandemic, in a battle with a virus against which we have no immunity, no vaccine and limited treatment options, there are risks. To shelter in place had risks and so will reentry.
The best we can do is enumerate and understand the risks and make conscious choices so that we are prepared and willing to suffer the consequences and, at the same time, work very hard to find treatments and a vaccine.
Be aware of the relative risks. Some openings can put limitations and safety measures in place to protect workers and encourage patrons to come. Other businesses, such as summer camps, cannot, by their very nature, put safeguards in place. Make sound choices. For example, I, like many of my friends, benefit financially if the camps open, if Norman Rockwell Museum opens, if Tanglewood opens, but we must put the general well-being ahead of individual gain.
The enemy of a sensible process is dissembling; its best friend is the truth. Demand truth from our politicians so we can begin to reclaim the power of the people to which we are accustomed and entitled, so we can conscientiously decide.