Wishful normalcy and paralysis is panic: the ground is shifting beneath our feet. We must think systemically and long-term now.

I will be shocked — happily — if schools reopen in two weeks.

It is much more likely, in my view, that the entire country will be in lockdown and our hospitals and nursing homes a deadly shambles. That’s NOT a prediction. But I do think it’s more likely than reopening schools on that timeline. And I believe we all need to think right now about how to mitigate and transcend that reality as a community if it comes to pass.

Believe me when I tell you that if I’m wrong, I will joyfully, indulgently bathe in all public ridicule I receive for thinking and talking about it this way. We will have a “come ridicule Billy party.” Everyone will be invited. You can throw fruit at me. But as of now, my thinking horizon is June and beyond, not the next two weeks.

I base this grim assessment both on what I’m reading — and what I just experienced from a hospital in Clay County. I spent the better part of two days in a hospital room there agitating to close schools while trying to care for my dad and do my other job.

Stop saying there are no cases in Polk. Say “we’re blind” instead.

Let me say clearly first: it is deeply deeply deeply irresponsible for anyone to declare: “there are no coronavirus/COVID cases in Polk County.” The complete lack of national testing capacity renders that statement ridiculous and dangerous.

What that statement means is that no one sick enough to get tested and get the very slow results has come back positive yet, as far as we know. That’s all. And, of course, most people who have the virus are not sick enough to get tested. Institutions should have the moral courage and honesty to tell the public: We have no idea if it’s here because there is no meaningful testing capacity. But based on the geographic distribution and contagion patterns elsewhere, you should assume we have cases and not go out to bars and mass gatherings. We are blind. Behave accordingly.”

Indeed, right about now would be a good time for Lakeland Regional Health and the other hospitals to very publicly begin communicating their status — if they’re not doing it already. They should be publicly describing what they need from our community and its social and financial capital (private and public) to sustain a weeks-long battle against this disease at the same time every other American community is doing the same thing. More on that in a moment.

From “one of the nation’s leading academic hospitals”

First, everyone should read this tweet-thread and decide whether it’s worth it to go out partying in a confined space tonight. How many of you have grandparents? How many of you know and love nurses and doctors?

My personal experience in a landlocked county’s Florida hospital this week dovetails exactly with the feeling conveyed in this thread.

One could feel the tension of the nurses spike late Friday. There was talk among staff of a COVID case at a different nearby hospital and doctors/nurses in quarantine. The isolation rooms at this hospital were said to be full. And after we left, I received word of multiple pending COVID tests in that hospital. I can’t verify the truth of this. There is no central authority with which to confirm it. And even if there was, so what? There is no way to test me; and I’m low risk. No one should burn up a test on me. And the few tests we do have take so long for results as to be useless for personal decision-making. I am highly unlikely to have been exposed. I didn’t see any patient that made me suspicious at all until I was leaving and that was from a distance. I was sanitizing my hands religiously the entire time and effectively “quarantined” with my dad in his room most of the time.

But I did touch common door handles, etc. And I’m choosing to give my family space at home and act with what you might call attentive personal distancing. I would wager to say that anyone who was in a hospital in the last couple of day in many many places is in exactly the same position I am. So what do you do? There are no real good answers. But I think I should tell you. And I don’t really know if I should go to the School Board meeting Tuesday.

In any event, all of this creates immense social pressure. My dad is in a home; and we already know we’re not taking him back to a hospital if he has complications. Now multiply those kinds of knock-on effects by millions. Filling the health care system with COVID closes it for other people, which drives pressure and suffering outward until it affects us all.

The long-term benefits of closing schools

I’m getting various questions from school staff that you might call “compliance”-focused.

I think the questions are grounded in a reality that is changing almost hourly. People are worried about the details of school accountability, testing, academic requirements, paid time off, contract niceties, etc. I think events will very quickly make all of that minutiae irrelevant. These questions reflect short-term thinking. And they imply a level of situational control that no one is going to have. Nothing is going to be ideal or crystal clear. The scope of the social challenge is enormous; and attention to individual situations will be very difficult to spare. Fair warning on that. Creating clarity and direction at a large scale will be very important.

With that in mind, here are some of the long-term benefits of closing schools now as mass gathering places that I see:

  1. It greatly diminishes the cluster infection potential that comes with having 200 or more mass gatherings of a total of 130,000-150,000 people every (counting all schools, public or private, and their employees and volunteers)
  2. It turns the schools into community assets for the distribution of food etc. It makes them effective micro-gathering places. We now have more than 120 solid public facilities at our community disposal for use as necessary. I’m all for a deep cleaning of them now, as what appears to be the next step we’re pursuing; but I hope we’re also working closely with health officials and hospitals about how to best use these facilities moving ahead. That could include using them as additional patient space, if necessary.
  3. For publicly-funded schools — district and charter — closure creates a class of skilled people with a built-in universal basic income through the end of summer. (If I understand the finance correctly.) The money has been budgeted and allocated by the state. I think we posses it. Everybody’s getting paid. That economic flow into the community will be very very important. It should continue for everyone. I don’t really care about narrow HR rules or policies at the moment. Everybody we keep on the payroll is somebody the rest of the government doesn’t have to address, whether those people can produce educational work product or not.
  4. That skilled workforce can be mobilized for a lot of things related to human care and development. My own feeling is that workforce is best mobilized through a sense of volunteerism and appeal to duty rather than ordering them to report. A lot of our people are afraid. A lot of our people have their own health issues that make them vulnerable. Let’s keep that in mind and drive a positive mobilization. For instance, I think we should be open to a program that rapidly provides child care for heath care workers — if the hospitals think that would be helpful. The nurses where I was were deeply worried about what to do with their kids. We have to help them.

Indeed, the dirty secret of American capitalism is that free public education is vital to its function, if only for the child care.

I’m told pre-schools/early learning coalition is going to open as usual on Monday. Public schools don’t control that. It’s probably a mistake to open. But, on the other hand, most pre-school teachers and staff don’t have the UBI aspect that public school employees do. I don’t know enough about how the pre-school system works and is overseen to say intelligent things about how to close. But the state needs to be thinking about it very very hard. We’ve created a society with no effective safety net; and the bill is coming due in so many ways. We’re going to have to create one on the fly, one that includes child care somehow.

Dear political and economic leadership class: mobilize public and private capital now in creative, assertive ways

Now that we’ve gotten the schools closed, local governments, chambers, and economic development councils should be forming an emergency joint response committee to mobilize everything we have, publicly and privately. Perhaps this is happening already; I’ve been focused on the schools. If it is happening, bear with me; but I don’t see many signs of it.

This committee should be talking to medical and eldercare leadership and asking one question over and over again: how do we help you get the resources you need to fight this battle for us. What can we do? What do we need to tell our members and our public. Be honest with us.  

And this committee should be asking: how do we sustain vital services and economic activity if the country is locked down? How do we protect our businesses, non-profit organizations, and their employees?  

For instance, Bonnet Springs Park is a beautiful, community-spirited idea and donation from some of our leading citizens.

But a $150 million small business emergency sustenance fund would be of greater immediate and long-term help in this crisis. LEDC and others could marshal private capital quickly to help fund operations and payroll for businesses that are going to be severely harmed. This would be an enormous public service. If you’re a billionaire, with the capability of doing this…I’m talking to you. Make it $500 million while you’re at; it’s only the last $100 million that counts, after all. Be heroic.

We are extraordinarily lucky to have one of America’s leading companies located here, with incredible logistical and production capabilities. I have no idea what Publix could or will do to help Polk County or the state as a whole. But I hope someone is having those discussions. How can Publix’s capacities be brought to bear in every aspect of this?

The worst panic is denial

I want to thank the Lake Wales Chamber of Commerce, Bartow City Commissioner Trish Pfeiffer, and Polk Transit Director Tom Phillips for rising to the seriousness of this moment in their actions and public statements.

But I must say, the rest of Polk’s political and economic leadership class appears paralyzed to me. They retreat to deference to other authorities, who themselves defer; and they say things like, “It’s important not to panic.”

I have no idea what that even means. Is it panicking not to attend a St. Patrick’s Day party at a bar tonight? Is it panicking to think through what happens if we don’t open schools in two weeks, which we won’t? Is it panicking to try to mobilize capital (both human and financial) now in the service of saving lives and sustaining our health care system and community for the next few months? The clearest example of unhelpful “panicking” in this situation is to go the hospital with minor symptoms. That is something none of us should do. Again, the disease is not a terrible health threat to most of us; so we must protect those to whom it is a threat.

Panic is the inability to think and project rationally, based on your observations. I’m not panicking; I’m thinking.

It is entirely possible that some child at home from school will wander into the street unsupervised and be hit by a car and die because we’ve closed the schools. I know, in large part, that will be on my head. I also know that burning through the health care and elder care system in a way that strains every inch of our community and society will be on my head too if I don’t everything I can to lead and help.

That’s what leading and governing is. It’s taking responsibility for hard things. It’s talking to the public about them with clarity and direction. We need it from all of our leaders now — public and private. Our forebears have been tested; now we’re being tested. Step up.

We have great resources and camaraderie in this community. We can mobilize them to protect and support each other — and maybe even other communities. And the worst thing that happens if we mobilize them for nothing is that we quickly demobilize them. And all of you get to have a Billy ridicule party.

If that happens, it will be one of the happiest days of my life.

5 comments

  1. David Price

    Thoughtful leadership Billy! Planning for the possible not hoping for the improbable.

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

    If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

    Rudyard Kipling

  2. Carol Stebbins

    Thank you for your careful evaluation and well-reasoned recommendations. I whole heartedly agree we must ramp up plans for a sustained paralysis of services in the absence of direction from government agencies who should have been prepared.

  3. Cassie Gibson

    I’m surprised to hear the school board meeting is still going to occur.
    Good article, Billy.

  4. Sheryl Gentry

    I am so completely in support of you on this! I sincerely hope we overreact such that I can join you in the ridicule party. I’ll take a tomato with you if it saves lives.

  5. Sally Moore

    although not Polk county related , but am I living this, not sure yet, but maybe? my daughter in Arizona works for a prison there, and she is sick. Tested negative for flu and nirovirus but no corona virus test… here take these pills, for 5 days. Ok. She is taking the meds and is healthy-ish and will be ok If she does have it. My point being, do the test, clear her and KNOW she doesn’t have it before she can spread it. rather safe than sorry. Am I wrong in thinking this? Ummmm I dunno. but we don’t know what it is, and at least testing for what it isn’t will be ok. She hasn’t been overseas, as far as she knows hasn’t been in contact with anyone that she knows of, but she works in an “ ice” facility with all sorts of people coming in on a daily basis, which touch the same door knobs and surfaces the workers do…. protect everyone. If not the flu or Noro test for latter… Only makes sense. I love my president ( no matter affiliation) and they are doing best they can, but not testing those that don’t have flu or norovirus, and are sick… please take the next ( I would think) common sense step. THAT is what will stop the spread . Knowledge