States Reopening In A 'Data-Free Zone' Worries One Expert

May 11, 2020

How do we navigate the unknown as safely as possible? And how do we engage with each other again in public in a way that's safe and science-based? A health metrics expert answered those questions and more in an AprilĀ discussion sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Dr. Vin Gupta is affiliate assistant professor of health metrics sciences at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington which recently predicted 135,000 COVID-19 deaths by the middle of August. That's double what it forecast in April.

What worries Gupta is states are opening up in the midst of a "data-free zone" - meaning very little testing is available so states don't know who has the virus or how many people will get it. But he admits people have lost patience, including two intensive care nurses he worked with who said, "we just need to see what happens and be smart about it."

What's Not Risky?

Gupta, also an analyst for NBC/MSNBC, says car washes or anything that is non-contact can be opened more safely than others. Think: the opposite of tattoo parlors.

Already one Cincinnati lawn care company is touting it's hands-off interaction. Lawn Love says it's similar to an Uber or a Lyft in that it has a built-in technology layer. "Instead of us sending someone out to your home to give you a quote, we create a structured blueprint of your entire property using satellite mapping tools and algorithms that we've built," CEO Jeremy Yamaguchi explains.

Parks are another safe bet for Gupta, as long as people are willing to do social distancing and wear masks. Where it gets tricky is that states each have their own parameters. For example, Hawaii is considering tracking tourists with ankle bracelets, GPS and facial recognition.

The New Normal For Travel

"Practically speaking, getting on a flight to go on a vacation is going to require masks, infection control, commonsense things being top of mind," Gupta says. "And I think when it comes to restaurants and other public establishments, every restaurant is going to have to have some type of social distancing measure."

He does have this caution: "There's minimal data. There's no failsafe that's hard and concrete and available. That's why we need to be incremental even though it's seemingly unreasonable to expect people to wear masks and sit six feet apart in a restaurant for the undetermined future."