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Editorial: Is the Coin Shop a Model for Reopening?

Most people in the United States are under coronavirus-induced lockdown orders. The retail economy is at a standstill. Grocery stores, hardware stores, and "essential" businesses of the like remain open, but practically every other enterprise from New York to Los Angeles is shuttered. Some states and municipalities have even cordoned off the areas of essential stores that are deemed inessential.

The objective of these lockdowns, which was originally to reduce peak medical demand, has morphed into something more expansive: If a population stays inside long enough that there is no transmission and no new infections, eventually the virus will stop circulating within that given geographic area. Once the area reopens, there will be few to no carriers of the virus and, consequentially, little risk of a coronavirus surge. This thinking can be extended to the nation at large: If the entire country remains locked down and there are no entrants, eventually cases will peter out.

The going theory is that this is preferable to mass infection, which would have surprisingly similar results but at a higher human cost. Dr. Scott Atlas of the Hoover Institution notes,

We know from decades of medical science that infection itself allows people to generate an immune response — antibodies — so that the infection is controlled throughout the population by "herd immunity." ... [I]nfected people without severe illness are the immediately available vehicle for establishing widespread immunity. By transmitting the virus to others in the low-risk group who then generate antibodies, they block the network of pathways toward the most vulnerable people, ultimately ending the threat.

Dr. Atlas suggests that reopening the economy would allow for this herd immunity to develop. He does add that we should "[s]trictly protect the known vulnerable, self-isolate the mildly sick and open most workplaces and small businesses with some prudent large-group precautions." The issue is that allowing everyone to venture to the town square, even the infected who remain asymptomatic, will increase the rate of transmission to the "known vulnerable." The infection curve, which we worked as a society to flatten, would spike and all of our valiant efforts would be wasted.

The best model for reopening appears to be somewhere in between the two options on the table (the first being a perpetual lockdown until new cases are at zero; the other being a large-scale reopening with a nebulous set of precautions). Per the Wall Street Journal, epidemiologists suggest pinning down a "threshold level," i.e., a point at which the number of new cases is so low that it would not allow for the rapid transmission the lockdowns are intended to avoid.

The University of Washington suggests a threshold level of one new case per day per million, meaning that my state, North Carolina, could reopen once cases trickle down to roughly eleven cases per day. That would cut pretty down close to the hope for "few to no carriers of the virus" that I suggested earlier.

A healthcare initiative, Resolve to Save Lives, suggests a threshold level of 40 new cases per day per million. Under this proposition, North Carolina -- with a population of 10.5 million -- could reopen once new cases clocked in at 420 cases per day. That number of cases is actually fewer than the current daily increase.

Both models assume that reopening would be paired with testing and contract tracing, a system where the state alerts contacts of the infected that they may be carriers of the coronavirus.

As you can see, there is a big gulf between the two proposals. The average of one and 40 is 20.5, so what if we were to stay partially reopening once there are 20.5 cases per day per million people? This is not a recommendation from an epidemiologist (I am an incoming college freshman), but this is my attempt at reconciling what appear to be two extremes and, ultimately, two philosophies about our way forward: one that prioritizes herd immunity, and another that seeks to banish every strand of coronavirus lurking in the shadows.

Under this 20.5 average, North Carolina could begin reopening once it has 215 new cases per day and a mechanism for verifying that there are no new cases sprouting under the radar (i.e., testing). The state government could determine whether it wants to supplement this policy with a mandatory quarantine of out-of-state entrants, which would ensure that North Carolinians are not subject to the importation of coronavirus from elsewhere.


I have been careful to say begin reopening. What does this look like?

The best starting point that I can think of is the neighborhood coin shop. As a numismatist, I may be biased toward the men and women who provide me with affordable coins and paper money, but I cannot help but think they would be the model for reopening our economy. Coin shops typically have glass cases serve as an unintentional barrier between customer and employee, and this division could be expanded to six feet by tape on each side. If proprietors wanted to be even more careful, they could wear masks and gloves and require customers to apply hand sanitizer.

A coin shop in Tampa, Florida

Other businesses have an arrangement similar to coin shops: jewelry shops, pawnbrokers, and even the counter at a coffee store (sans the general seating area). By virtue of the businesses' floor-plans, there would be enough separation that the risk would be no more elevated than, say, going to the grocery store. The one thing that would have to be eliminated is the customary handshake that signifies a successful negotiation.

The key to public safety appears to be a limited number of cases per million, which will ensure that the goal of these lockdowns -- the suppression of new cases -- will not be all for naught. Within this framework, there is plenty that government can do. The choice is not a binary decision between complete reopening (mass infection) and multiyear shutdowns (economic collapse). Instead, there is a middle ground that would allow for some commerce as we combat the vestiges of the coronavirus in the states where it is on the decline.

All unsigned FDL Review content is the product of Declan M. Hurley. Hurley dispatches a digital newsletter several times a week with political news and analysis, a free product that is called the Hurley Report. You can sign up at