It was the week that the lights went out on Broadway, as New York City theaters closed their doors in an effort to prevent the spread of the global coronavirus pandemic.

March will be less mad this year because of the NCAA’s decision to cancel its basketball tournaments, meaning there will be no Final Four brackets to distract office workers, many of whom will be working from home anyway.

And the start of the Major League Baseball season, an annual rite of spring, is on hold for a month at least. Fans looking for a sense of hope and renewal will have to go elsewhere.

The wave of closures also spread across Maine last week as long-planned trips, conferences and events were taken off the calendar. Private colleges and the state university system will be extending spring break, and when classes resume they will be online-only. Portland’s Baxter Academy, a math and science charter school, is the first K-12 school to announce a transition to distance learning, but plans are underway for others to follow.

These measures, part of a strategy known as social distancing, are necessary to slow the spread of coronavirus so cases do not swamp the capacity of hospitals while scientists work to develop a vaccine. There is no way of knowing how many of these individual closures are actually necessary to stop the spread of the virus, which has circled the globe since it was first observed in China late last year. But that’s the problem.

We don’t know what to close because we still don’t know who has the disease. The lack of access to adequate testing means that everyone has to err on the side of caution, assuming that that every hand and every hard surface are disease vectors.

As of this writing, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that it has tested about 10,000 people for coronavirus nationwide. Meanwhile, South Korea has the capacity to test that many people every day. In the early days of the epidemic, South Korea was seen as a hot spot for the virus, but it’s now clear that the country’s robust testing program makes it an international model on how to contain and reduce the harm of COVID-19.

Here in the United States, we are still flailing in the dark. In Maine, only 64 tests had been administered by the state lab by Friday morning, with three presumptive positive results. Since none of these cases appears to be related to one another, logic would tell you that the real number is much higher, but how high? And where are the infected people?

For now, canceling events and promoting social distancing just to be on the safe side is prudent. But all of the cancellations are going to take their toll. A state that relies on tourism as heavily as Maine does won’t be able to absorb many empty hotel rooms, restaurant tables, fishing camps and beach houses before the lost revenue echoes through the rest of the economy.

Picking up the economic pieces for the small businesses and workers – especially those who can’t work because they or a member of their household is sick – should be a priority for state and federal government. Congress should pass the package of economic measures negotiated with the White House last week, which include emergency sick pay, food assistance and health coverage, as well as work toward permanent safety net programs that would make the nation more resilient. This will not be the last pandemic we face.

But we also need to dramatically ramp up our testing programs and recognize the opportunity that we lost before the virus was detected here. More people will get sick and some of them will die because the Trump administration was devoted to treating coronavirus as a political problem instead of a matter of public health. We don’t know how many people have been infected because our president didn’t want us to know, because it would interfere with his personal political interest. If the stock market hadn’t crashed, it’s unlikely that President Trump would have stopped tweeting claims that this fast-spreading virus was a “hoax” and that his response had been “perfect.”

There is no excuse for this inept response, but the mistakes are not just in the past. Now that coronavirus is here, we need to match the world’s most aggressive testing programs so that we know where to direct limited public health resources.

Delaying the start of baseball season is a small price to pay for public safety. But until we know the limits of this infection, there is no end to what might be shut down.


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