Terry Schwadron

May 21, 2020

4 min read

A Limp, Late Word from CDC

Terry H. Schwadron

May 21, 2020

After a delay for no seemingly understandable reason, the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are out — of course, after states have started re-opening.

But better late than never.

In squelching the first attempt to distribute the advice for how to reopen, the White House simply had said they were too detailed and that no one wanted to read that much information.

Even at 60 pages rather than six, they needn’t have worried.

A quick skim is sufficient to tell you both that most people only will want to turn to guidelines affecting specific areas like schools, summer camp, workplaces or bars. It is not a document that you would read for enjoyment or depth. Or for rules. It is a collection of weak social distancing bromides that are offered as possibilities with absolutely no punch.

That first look also should assure whoever it is at the White House who cares about too much detail that these guidelines will not cross that threshold. In any event, all the states have begun re-opening, including those with counties that do not meet the listed criteria.

Rather, the guidelines repeat what we know, that masks, social distancing, and disinfecting cleaning should rule most decision-making about re-opening. No kidding. Moreover, it is filled with reminders that these are guidelines that do not demand adherence.

Indeed, the guidelines are probably more notable for what is not there: There is nothing here about government enforcement of safety rules for workers, or any checklist for consumers to use in entering shops, malls, churches and worship sites or other public places. There is nothing here about testing.

What the guidelines stress more than anything else are the need for communities to distinguish conditions for adjudging phases of very gradual and monitored re-opening sequences.

Of course, under pressure of a dead economy and Donald Trump’s relentless campaigning, we’ve ignored all of it.

The guidelines

Here’s the advice for workplaces with employees who include people of higher risk. “As workplaces consider a gradual scale up of activities towards pre-COVID-19 operating practices, it is particularly important to keep in mind that some workers are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19,” the guidelines say.

That’s it, no required dividers, protective gear, regular testing. Are these guidelines what we’re seeing at meat-packing plants?

“Step 1: Scale up only if business can ensure strict social distancing, proper cleaning and disinfecting requirements, and protection of their workers and customers; workers at higher risk for severe illness are recommended to shelter in place,” reads this section. “Step 2: Scale up only if business can ensure moderate social distancing, proper cleaning and disinfecting requirements, and protection of their workers and customers; workers at higher risk for severe illness are recommended to shelter in place.”

Does that look like most of the workplace pictures we’ve been seeing — you know, the ones that say work or lose your job? The ones that say cut off unemployment benefits for those unwilling to risk disease?

Ford Motor Company, where there is an active autoworkers union, has been building in accommodations; nevertheless, Ford has suspended production at two plants because of infections. But lots of companies haven’t done much at all. Who knows? It’s up to states — or to the companies themselves. No one has a rule book to enforce.

The advice about schools, summer camps and bars look at lot the same. The guidelines suggesting social distancing on subways and mass transit seemed particularly useless — and written by someone who never takes the subway.

What’s missing here — reinforced by the fact that the guidelines already are out of date — is anything to give workers, consumers, parents, or even business owners confidence that health and safety matter.

What About Enforcement

Rather than use these guidelines as enforceable advice to businesses as part of a “whole of government” approach, the feds have told OHSA to stand down on enforcing safety rules. The Labor Department basically is not present, and the Department of Education is silent as colleges give entirely different answers to re-opening questions about the fall. The Department of Agriculture has piped up only to send money to farmers and to plead with the White House to allow temporary immigrant workers to harvest crops. The Department of Health and Human Services, of course, contributed by helping to squash the CDC guidelines.

The White House ignores suggestions for anything gradual about re-opening.

The Republican Senate majority has looked at such guidelines for gradual and then doubled down on insistence to provide companies with blanket liability immunity for any employer — regardless of what the company does in the name of safety.

For that matter, the government is not insisting that companies spend bailout money either on protective gear or on maintaining employment levels.

No wonder Trump is leaving the job to the states.

Even on its first day, the CDC guidelines look to be shelved as a dust-collector.