A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

As Kentucky prepares for businesses to reopen, analysis shows state’s shutdown saved lives

By Melissa Patrick and Al Cross
Kentucky Health News

Gov. Andy Beshear has announced details of the first broad phase of his plan to re-open Kentucky’s economy in May, while saying child care, restaurants, and businesses that require increased human contact are not yet on the list of what will be allowed to open.

“I hope everybody also sees that these are cautious steps that are going to be done with strict compliance, and I would not be suggesting these if I did not think that we could not do them safely,” he said. “And if it proves that we can’t do any of them safely, it is always subject to pause.”

Beshear stressed that it’s important that the state not open up in such a way that it causes a second spike of cases, a common occurrence in pandemics.

Beshear went over a list of 10 rules that he said will apply to every group that is planning to reopen, including such things as continuing to allow telework when possible; opening gradually, in phases; doing daily onsite temperature checks; providing access to personal protective gear if needed; maintaining and enforcing social distancing; and making special accommodations for those who need it, such as those who do not have child care or who are over 60 with underlying health conditions.

He said it’s also important to have immediate testing of those who show up to work with a temperature, and systems for tracing contacts of those who test positive for the coronavirus.

The big day is May 11, when non-essential manufacturing, construction companies, and vehicle and vessel dealerships can open, Beshear said. Auto and boat dealers will be doing business differently, he said; for example, test drives will have to be done solo.

Professional services will be allowed to open, at half-staff, and pet grooming and boarding will be allowed to resume, but with no person-to-person contact.

Beshear also announced that horse racing will be allowed to open on May 11, starting at Churchill Downs — but with no fans. “This is one of the most detailed plans that we have seen,” he said.

On May 20, retail may re-open and churches may hold in-person services, both at reduced capacity. Beshear said they are working on details, and it will likely be a percentage of normal occupancy. He said they are also working with churches to make plans for things like Sunday school, and “All of this is contingent on being able to keep social distancing, on the type of cleaning that needs to occur.”

On May 25, “provided the virus is where we think it will be at that stage,” he said, social gatherings of 10 or fewer people will be allowed, with social distancing and masking where necessary.

“We want you to know that we think this is possible, but it is all contingent on all of us doing this right, on making sure that we don’t see a spike in the virus,” he said “But there is at least a light, I hope you see at the end of the tunnel where we can get together a little more.”

Barbers, salons, cosmetology businesses and similar services will also be allowed to open May 25.

Beshear said restaurant openings would have to come later, and the state is working with them to figure out how to they can open safely.

He said day-care centers will also not be allowed to open this month because they increase contacts to a level that can easily spread the virus: “We go from a controlled amount of contacts to almost exponential growth.”

He said gyms, movies, campgrounds, youth sports are also scheduled to open in the second phase. As for youth sports, he said he is hopeful some of these sports can resume in June or July, but “Public pools will not be in phase one or phase two.” He said summer camps will not open in phase one, and it will be hard to open them in phase two.

Beshear said the “healthy at home” approach and social distancing are still keys to defeating the virus, “so healthy-at-work doesn’t stop being healthy-at-home.”

Reopening plans also presume that testing will continue to increase, to keep better track of the virus. Asked why Kentucky lags in testing behind other states, particularly Tennessee, Beshear said one differences is that large health-care companies that are in Tennessee are doing almost all the testing, with only 5 percent done by the state. “With us, it’s over 30 percent.”

He said the state hopes to see more private-sector testing, to increase the state’s capacity much faster. He said the rates of infection seen in Kentucky’s testing are promising and compare well to other states.

A University of Kentucky study released Wednesday estimates that without Beshear’s restrictions on economic activity, the state would have had 10 times more coronavirus inflections and 2,000 more deaths than it did through last week.

“What’s really interesting is that the study was authored by professors at the UK Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise, which is funded by the Koch Foundation and home to the same free-market philosophy that advocates reopening the economy without delay,” writes Linda Blackford, who runs the opinion page of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Study co-author Aaron Yelowitz, an economics professor, told Blackford, “What we do is we look at data and follow it where it goes. If the data told us something different, we would have written a different paper, but the data very clearly spoke to the fact that social distancing and the stay at home orders really do matter.”

Yelowitz did the study with Institute Director Charles Courtemanche, University of Louisville professor Joshua Pinkston, and graduate students Anh Le and Joseph Garuccio. They compared Kentucky’s data and policies with states in the South and Midwest, covering 2,477 counties.

“These results suggest that Kentucky policymakers should be cautious when opening up the economy. Returning to partial restrictions without a broader shelter-in-place directive may not be enough to contain the spread of the virus,” Courtemanche said in a UK news release. “However, the public health benefits from strong social distancing restrictions need to continue to be weighed against the massive economic losses that disproportionately affect low-wage sectors of the economy.”

Asked about the study, Beshear said, “This is what we were seeing in our data, but I want to say it indicates that healthy-at-home gets the credit. I don’t get the credit; everybody out there, every Kentuckian, gets the credit for being willing to do what it takes.”

He added, “I don’t know of any other state that people have come together in the way that we have seen, that have followed a set of restrictions and have stayed calm in the midst of a worldwide pandemic… Now we’ve got to keep it going forward. That is our challenge. Making sure that as we change the restrictions a little to be healthy at work, if we can follow them just as well we can have those good results. So let’s make sure that we keep that up.”

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