Are you ready to reopen?

Here we go!

Wisconsin will reopen in the coming days and weeks. All of us will feel our way forward — not toward the new normal but back to the future. Success will depend on our collective ability to address serious issues that threaten our health and economic future. It requires all of us to take the threats seriously and engage ironic forms of precautions. Unlike most situations, our concern for others makes us safer. The reverse is also true.

I’m optimistic about our ability to open the economy AND keep each other safe. Every day we learn more about COVID-19, how and who it attacks, and options for keeping us safer. Our leaders are having adult conversations about how we open the state and our disagreements are about speed, rather than philosophy. Together, we will make good decisions about what we need to do and how fast to move forward.

This is not a zero-sum game where we can only make advances on one front by sacrificing the other. Unfortunately, the comfortable positions are at the extremes — they’re easier to understand and defend. The most effective position is somewhere in the middle and includes softer issues such as how we think about each other and our willingness to sacrifice for the common good.

I can’t think of a situation with higher stakes. Neither of the extreme positions will work. We can’t flip the switch and open everything without restrictions. Likewise, we can’t lock down the economy until we have COVID-19 under control. The situation requires serious consideration of multiple factors. There are no simple solutions as we fly blind into an unprecedented situation.

Uneven testing sends mixed signals about the seriousness of the virus, its spread across the country, and its impact on our health. Who and where we test changes the picture. The lack of widespread testing makes it impossible to gain a full picture of the overall infection or fatality rates. We learn something new and more ominous every week. COVID-19 is an extremely virulent threat that demands our attention and caution.

It’s a complicated situation, often framed as a choice between health and the economy. More accurately, it’s a decision based on political implications and our values. Information about health, infrastructure, and economic issues set the context for future decisions. Politicians and each of us as individuals will ultimately make the key decisions, influenced by self-interest and underlying community values. It’s a tough test for our leaders and a character test for the rest of us.

Our ability to take effective action aligned with our values will determine our success. We will succeed in direct proportion to our willingness and ability to put others before ourselves. Some actions we take protect us. Frequent handwashing is a good example. Most actions protect others — wearing masks, covering sneezes and coughs, social distancing, and avoiding the vulnerable. We do these things for the people around us. We need both sets of actions to be successful.

One concern still gives me pause. Our success depends on everyone doing their part. A small minority can cause our efforts to fail. We sacrificed to keep the infection curve below the level that exceeds our health care system’s capacity. As we move forward, we need to protect those who don’t have a choice either because they can’t work at home or they are members of groups more at risk from COVID-19.

It’s a critical time. We face a complicated situation that constrains our options to move safely into the future. Recovery requires everyone’s ongoing engagement. Together, we can make Wisconsin an example of how to guard against the virus and protect our people. We’re off to a good start. Still, it’s just a start.

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