Are we ready for some good news? Here it is: Social distancing works.

Because our state government was aggressive and imposed emergency limits on economic and social activity, and because Mainers complied with the new rules, the spread of the novel coronavirus appears to have slowed to levels that the health care system in Maine can accommodate.

While it’s too soon to know whether we have reached the peak of this outbreak, the recent numbers are encouraging. There were 80 new COVID cases in Maine during the five-day period that ended Wednesday, following a five-day period during which the total was 194.

So far, our emergency rooms have not been overwhelmed. We have not had to ration ventilators. Coffins are not stacked up in improvised mortuaries, as we have seen in images from other places around the world.

Mainers owe a debt to the health care workers, first responders and essential service providers who continue to show up for work, putting their lives at risk, often at low pay and without sufficient personal protective equipment, for a crisis that is far from over. But we can also thank the people who have stayed home, made do with less and limited their social contacts, because they are playing a key role in keeping the crisis manageable. Their sacrifices are saving lives, too.

Unfortunately, the success of this public health measure has made it a political wedge issue. Because the death toll is much lower than the worst-case scenarios in some models (which were projections of what would happen if we did nothing to stop the spread of the virus), some are claiming that social distancing is no longer necessary, or even that it was never necessary to begin with. Both are dangerous conclusions to draw.

What we have seen as a state and as a nation is that social distancing works. If it’s applied early enough in an outbreak, and enough people voluntarily cooperate, it has the power to prevent a catastrophe. Abandoning it too soon risks lives and wastes the sacrifices people have made by staying home.

That doesn’t mean that what we have lived through for the last six weeks is a “new normal” or something that will have to persist in its current form until a vaccine is developed. If the current trends hold, we should soon see a gradual rollback of the regulations, which were applied in stages to contain the outbreak.

What comes first? Gov. Mills doesn’t have a magic switch to “reopen” the Maine economy. She could relax the restrictions on barbershops or restaurants, but she can’t order customers to feel safe enough to patronize them. If it leads to a spike in cases, an abrupt reopening could cause more damage to the economy than keeping the emergency rules in place.

But before any of the regulations start to wind down, let’s not lose sight of a lesson we have learned during this crisis: Social distancing works. We should not let its success blind us to what has been accomplished.

Social distancing has saved lives in Maine, and it will continue to save them as we manage this crisis. And if there’s another outbreak in the future, it’s a tactic that can be deployed again to save lives.

And that is good news.


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