Just above freezing today, a light snow falling. I took a walk down to Wingra Park, reading He Knew He Was Right, one of the funny parts where a hapless clergyman attempts vainly to not get married (I know that describes a lot of Trollope but the joke lands every time.) The near shore of Lake Wingra was a hockey rink for parents and their kids, on the last day of the long Christmas weekend. Last night, as the holiday requires, we ordered Chinese delivery from Ichiban (in Madison, for reasons lost to history, Szechuan restaurants have Japanese names) and watched the new Pixar movie, Soul. There are very few movies all four of us are willing to sit down and watch in full; I think this year it was just Soul and American Pickle, so I guess we only like to watch sappy movies about hapless comic figures who return from apparent death. The kids and I agree that cumin lamb should be one of those Chinese dishes on the permanent shortlist of American menu standards, like kung pao chicken and ma po tofu and beef lo mein; why isn’t it? Is it hard to make?
Blustery day in Madison; windy and wet, light snow falling, but not sticking. An unwelcome reminder that the constrictedness of our current way of life is going to be harder to handle when the ground’s frozen solid and you have to Hoth up to go outside. Still: this wave of cases has clearly crested in Dane County, which even at the severest moments has been spared the worst of what’s hit Wisconsin these past few months.
And bluster in the State Capitol, as legislators, whether they actually believe this or just feel constrained by political realities to say so, are arguing that my vote and the votes of my fellow Wisconsinites shouldn’t count, and that those legislators should be empowered to choose our Presidential electors in our stead. I prefer the sad wet snow.
What’s going on with some of the topics previously covered?
Slimming: The initial weight loss reported slowed down, but hasn’t stopped, even though I started eating take-out from restaurants in July and have been doing so pretty regularly. Now at about 18 pounds below pre-pandemic weight. Why, I wonder? Is it really just the lunch out at work and the snack at the coffeeshop forgone?
Pandemic elections: 100,000 people in Dane County have already returned their absentee ballots for November. The city is setting up “Democracy in the Park” events where voters can turn in their ballots to city pollworkers; Republicans are trying to have those events declared illegal, because (this is me editorializing) they make it easy and convenient for people to vote whose votes they’d rather not see cast. There is a lot of noise about slowness of the mail, but it’s been fast here, and I mailed my ballot in; received by the clerk in just two days. The underlying worry here is that political actors will try to retroactively have legally cast ballots invalidated after Election Day, leaving voters with no recourse. The fact that mailed-in absentees are expected to be predominantly Democratic (only 44,000 ballots returned so far in Crucial Waukesha County) creates an obvious means of attack. I don’t really think that’ll happen but people are thinking about it under their mental breath.
Writing: The book is almost done! A draft is written, I’m going through and revising and putting in more endnotes now. To me it seems completely different from How Not To Be Wrong, while Dr. Mrs. Q says it seems exactly the same, which seems a kind of sweet spot: I can hope the people who liked the other book will like this one, while feeling for myself that I’m not putting out the same product again and again like a hack.
Impossible Meat: We’re still eating a lot of it! I have absolutely learned to read it as meat and no longer think of it as a substitute. But we’ve converged on using it exclusively in sauces; as a burger, it still doesn’t totally satisfy.
Smart Restart: After the big surge with the opening of classes, UW-Madison shut down in-person instruction for two weeks and put the two first-year dorms where cases were concentrated into isolation. The positivity rate on campus has dropped back down to around 1% and the campus outbreak doesn’t seem to have created sustained exponential growth in Madison’s general population; but it does seem to have brought our daily case load back up to where it was months ago, from which it is, again, only very slowly dropping. When R_0 is a little less than 1, even a brief bump up in prevalence can be very expensive in terms of long-term cumulative case numbers. Now we are starting football again. Is that smart? There won’t be any fans in Camp Randall (which means the economic catastrophe for local businesses of a year without a football season is going to happen unblunted.) Then again, there’s something hypocritical about me saying “Hell no, why take the risk” since I’ve been watching and enjoying baseball. The enjoyment of millions of fans actually does have value. MLB, because lots and lots of money is riding on this, has mostly kept its players and employees from suffering outbreaks. The Big Ten can probably do the same — if it cares to. What I worry about is this. By all accounts, in-person teaching hasn’t been spreading COVID either. But when we had in-person teaching, everyone felt things were more normal, and thinking things were more normal, they relaxed their social distancing, and that generated thousands of cases. There was indirect spread. Will football generate the same?
Really! I thought we could sort-of-open college again and not cause a big outbreak. Most of our students live here year-round. By all accounts, there have been fraternity parties all summer. We had a spike of cases in the campus area when bars opened back up at the end of June, which subsided when the county put back those restrictions (though never back down to the levels we’d seen in March, April, and May.) At the end of July I wrote “statewide, cases are growing and growing, and the situation is much worse in the South. I would fight back if you said this was a predictable consequence; nothing about this disease is predictable with any confidence. It could have worked.”
And maybe it could have; but it didn’t. As soon as school started last Wednesday, the percentage of student tests coming back positive, started growing, about 20% higher every day. On Saturday, nine Greek houses were quarantined. A week into school, with about 8% of tests positive, the University halted in-person classes and completely quarantined two first-year dormitories with two hours notice. Food is being brought in three times a day. Hope you like your roommate.
Maybe we can beat this back. Who knows? We did in July. But this outbreak is bigger.
Public schools in Madison are fully online right now. With a summer to prepare it’s working better than it did last spring. But it’s not great, and I would guess that for poor kids it’s a lot worse than “not great.” Private schools are allowed to be open in grades K-2, and a court decision that came down today has, at least for now, allowed them to open to all grades. More outbreaks? To be a broken record, who knows? The argument for opening K-2 sounds pretty good to me; while it’s not definite, most people seem to think younger children are less likely to spread and contract the disease, and that age range is where having kids at home limits parents most. Schools in Georgia have been open, and there have been lots of school outbreaks, and those schools get closed for a while and then reopen, but it doesn’t seem to have created big wave of cases statewide.
This article is good. Beating COVID isn’t all-or-nothing, but people seem to see it that way. If the bar’s open, that means it’s safe, and you can drink with whoever you want, as close as you want. No! Nothing is safe, if you mean safe safe. But also nothing is a guarantee of disaster. If everybody would do 50% of what they felt like doing, we could beat it. Or maybe 75%, who knows. But it feels like if we don’t insist on 0%, people will understand us to mean that 100% is OK. I don’t have any good ideas about how to fix this.
First trip back to the Westside Community Market, which in ordinary times is an every Saturday morning trip for me. It feels like a model for people just sitting down and figuring out how to arrange for people to do the things they want to do in a way that minimizes transmission. We don’t have to eliminate every chance for someone to get COVID. If we cut transmissions to a third of what it would otherwise be, that doesn’t mean a third as many people get COVID — it means the pandemic dies out instead of exploding. Safe is impossible, safer is important!
They’ve reorganized everything so that the stalls are farther apart. Everybody’s wearing masks, both vendors and customers. There are several very visible hand-washing stations. Most of the vendors now take credit cards through Square, and at least one asked me to pay with Venmo. It’s easy for people to keep their distance (though the vendors told me it was more crowded earlier in the morning.)
And of course it’s summer, the fields are doing what the fields do, the Flyte Farm blueberries, best in Wisconsin, are ready — I bought five pounds, and four containers of Murphy Farms cottage cheese. All you need is those two things for the perfect Wisconsin summer meal.
I have been generally feeling: it is OK to start relaxing restrictions on in-person contact, because there seems some decent chance that barring the most infectiogenic scenarios might be enough to keep outbreaks small and manageable. And that still might be true, in some contexts; in Dane County, we had a big spike of cases when the bars re-opened, and when the bars shut down again, the case spike went away, and hasn’t come back, though people are certainly out and about. But statewide, cases are growing and growing, and the situation is much worse in the South. I would fight back if you said this was a predictable consequence; nothing about this disease is predictable with any confidence. It could have worked. But I wouldn’t fight you if you said it was an expectable consequence, the consequence you thought most likely.
Similarly, if you rigorously jettison everyone with a demonstrated ability to play baseball from your team, and sign a collection of promising young players but keep them off the roster in order to avoid starting their service time, and then put that team on the field against major league competition, you might find that the nobodies and never-weres and used-to-bes find it within themselves to go on a scrappy “Why not?” run of success; or you might, as an expectable consequence, give up eight doubles and get beat 13-2.
What’s going to happen to school in the fall? Madison schools are talking about having two days on, three days off, with half the kids going on Monday and Tuesday and half on Thursday and Friday.
I think if we open anything it has to be schools. And it seems pretty clear we are not not opening anything. If there’s no school, how are people with young kids supposed to work?
There’s decent evidence that young kids are less likely to get infected with COVID, less likely to spread it, and drastically less likely to become seriously ill from it — so I don’t think it’s crazy to hope that you can bring kids together in school without taking too much of a hit to public health.
What about college? UW-Madison is proposing a “Smart Restart” plan in which students come back to dorms, on-campus instruction starts in a limited fashion (big classes online, small classes taught in big rooms with students sitting far apart.) A lot of my colleagues are really unhappy with the fact that we’re proposing to bring students back to campus at all. I’m cautiously for it. I am not going to get into the details because more detail-oriented people than me have thought about them a lot, and I’m just sitting here blogging on Independence Morning.
But three non-details:
Given the high case numbers among college students in Madison now, just from normal college student socializing, it’s not clear to me that asking them to come to class is going to make a notable difference in how much COVID spread the student population generates.
Any plan that says “Protect the most vulnerable populations, like old people, but let young healthy people do what they want” that doesn’t include “vulnerable people who can’t safely do their jobs because their workplaces are full of young, healthy, teeming-with-COVID people get paid to stay home” is not a plan. We can’t make 65-year-old teachers teach in person and we can’t make diabetic teachers teach in person and we can’t make teachers with elderly relatives in the household teach in person.
Any plan for re-opening schools has to have pretty clear guidelines for what triggers a reverse of course. We cannot figure out what’s safe, or “safe enough,” by pure thought; at some point we have to try things. But a re-opening plan that doesn’t include a re-closing plan is also not a plan.
Wisconsin is slowly loosening its emergency health restrictions. Stores are allowed to open as long as they’re not in enclosed malls and no more than five customers are inside at once. People are moving around more than they were in April (though still quite a bit less than they were at the beginning of March):
The streets aren’t empty; last Sunday I walked over to Tim Yu‘s house to drop off a copy of an oral history of REM I knew he wanted to read, and everyone in the neighborhood was outside; I probably socalized more, sidewalk to porch, than I do on an ordinary Sunday. AB and I did a 25-mile ride, a new record for her, and there were plenty of people out on the bikepaths, unmasked. I played Frisbee with CJ at Wingra Park and a big group of teenagers was hanging out in close quarters, looking very much not like a family group.
On the other hand, at Trader Joe’s today, shoppers were making a visible effort to stay away from one another, and I counted only four people without masks. I overheard the Russian guy who works there say to one of this co-workers, “We all look like freedom fighters.”
I see this as a reasonable response to increased knowledge about the nature of the disease. Sustained indoor propinquity seems to be the dominant mechanism of transition.
Freedom fighters! The Wisconsin Supreme Court has struck down the state stay-at-home order issued by Governor Evers, except not exactly, because in order to find a reading of the statute that supported the outcome they asserted they had no beef with the governor’s order itself, only its implementation and enforcement by Andrea Palm, the State Health Secretary (or rather the State Health Secretary Designee because the Senate doesn’t feel like confirming anyone.) Anyway, as of now, nobody knows what the rules are. Some bars opened up and served crowds as normal. Seems like a bad idea. The smart political money in Wisconsin says this decision has nothing to do with COVID per se but is mostly an attempt to establish some precedent that the executive needs legislative approval to, well, execute things.
I don’t know what happens next. Maybe nothing. Stores were already open, people were already moving around. And large chunks of the state, including some of the places with the highest caseload like Green Bay, Kenosha, and Milwaukee, are still under county orders that the Supreme Court didn’t touch. Maybe people packing into newly open bars will create superspreading events and we’ll see a big wave of new cases and deaths in Waukesha and Platteville. And maybe they won’t! The main thing we know about COVID is we don’t know much about COVID. Why was there so much more spread in New York than there was in Chicago, and so much more in Chicago than in San Francisco? I don’t think there are any convincing answers. There’s graph theory in it, as in my last post, but it’s not just graph theory.
Wisconsin may very well not suffer any disastrous consequence from opening up with no real plan. But it’s hard to deny we’re taking a risk of a disastrous consequence. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen. That’s not a crazy hope. Most drunk drivers get home safe.
The Wisconsin Idea: the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state. They drill this into you right when you are arrive; that we are not just here to teach things to the 18-22-year-olds in the room with us, but to contribute to the advancement of the state as a whole. Then after a while you start to realize it’s not just a slogan; it’s the actual value system of the institution.
I’ve been seeing it this last month. UW-Madison faculty members are doing swift and amazing work, sometimes visibly, sometimes behind the scenes. Not me, really. It’s not a time for pure math. But my colleagues! Song Gao from geography made this dashboard showing changes in mobility by county based on cellphone tracking data. Colleagues in statistics and engineering worked with the state government to pin down exactly what was meant by “14 days of decline in cases,” one of our criteria to start opening businesses. Speaking of opening businesses, Noah Williams from economics and his team at the Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy (caw!) wrote a report about the economic costs of the pandemic to the state and the ways we might go about opening more businesses, balancing production and safety. A friend at the med school is collecting blood from recovered patients so we can start to see how antibody levels relate to time since recovery. Thomas Friedrich from veterinary pathology is studying the genomes of viral samples around Wisconsin to understand how the disease is moving within the state. (It turns out that viruses, just like people, don’t actually move between Milwaukee and Madison that much.) My colleague/neighbor Mike Wagner from journalism just launched COVID-19 Wisconsin Connect, to foster discussion among the general public of what we’re going through. And the UW Library is working to document and archive the experience of the campus and the state during the pandemic, because we think we’ll remember exactly how this was, but we probably won’t. The Library will.
Trader Joe’s on Friday: the first time I had to wait in line to get in the store. To maintain an appropriately low density, they don’t let a new shopper in until someone comes out. This week, about 90% of shoppers were masked. The people who weren’t were mostly college-age. The food supply still seems pretty normal; a few things, like butter, were out, but it’s Trader Joe’s — there’s always something they’re for some reason out of. I asked the store manager whether they were selling more beer than usual, and he said, beer, no, hard liquor, yes.
Large majorities in Wisconsin support the governor’s safer-at-home order, but there are always dissenters:
You might be surprised to hear I have some sympathy for this point of view, though he needs to be more broad with his lockdown; Waukesha County, where Menominee Falls is, has just as high a case rate as Dane does.
But it’s not crazy to imagine that COVID spread might be slower in less dense regions; maybe so much slower that the pandemic could be kept in check with less stringent suppression measures. Let’s posit that, eventually, we open schools and some businesses in rural Wisconsin before we do the same in Milwaukee. So this guy gets his wish.
My concern is this: he is not going to then say “It’s just like I said, I want to work and be productive, I’m glad I’m able to do so and I support strong relief measures for my fellow Wisconsinites in Milwaukee who have to stay home for the sake of public health.” No, I think that guy is going to say “Why should my taxes be paying somebody in Milwaukee to sit at home when I have to work?”