Our View: Keep wearing your mask

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Next Wednesday, Virginia is slated to enter phase three of reopening from the coronavirus-caused shutdown. Meanwhile, cases are spiking in many states that have more aggressively reopened.

Those two sentences, taken together, are scary.

On the one hand, our economy needs to reopen as fully as possible, because many businesses are in trouble. Some large, national companies have filed for bankruptcy, while some local businesses, like Del Ray’s Nectar Coffee and Wine Bistro, are closing for good.

The rays of economic good news, such as a slight decline in the unemployment rate from April to May, have been caused by the gradual economic reopening in many states. But unemployment numbers remain at levels not seen since the Great Depression almost 100 years ago, so it’s imperative that our country – and state – begin fully operating.

The needed economic boost is counterbalanced by the health reality that there’s still no cure for COVID-19, nor is there an available vaccine. But there are rays of medical good news that provide hope, as it’s clear significant medical advances are being made.

There have been 22,000 scientific papers on COVID-19 produced so far in 2020, according to Bill Kelly, president of Bioinformatics, who writes a weekly roundup of the scientific advances on COVID-19. Multiple vaccines are in advanced stages of testing and many appear encouraging. New treatments are being discovered, including the common steroid Dexamethasone, which researchers in the UK discovered is effective in treating the most extreme cases of COVID-19.

Several things seem clear from the recent spike in COVID-19 cases:

• Large gatherings remain extremely dangerous. Much of the recent spike is being attributed to gatherings on Memorial Day, when crowds filled beaches and restaurants, particularly in the South.

• The spike is largely taking place among younger people, as they are the demographic that is more likely to gather in crowds, yet least likely to wear masks and practice social distancing. Though the spike is alarming, younger people are far less likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19 than those over age 50.

• Mask wearing and social distancing remain vital as people increasingly leave their homes and patronize restaurants and other businesses.

In our April 9 edition, the Alexandria Times launched our “Wear a mask. Save a life.” campaign, and for five weeks we ran photos of prominent Alexandrians in their facemasks. It was becoming clear even then that mask wearing, paired with physical distancing, had the potential to significantly slow the spread of COVID-19.

We also began advocating for much more widespread testing – including of asymptomatic people; drive-through testing in which people did not have to leave their vehicles; and pledges from restaurants to require all of their workers to wear masks and gloves.

Readers might be surprised to learn that we received considerable pushback behind the scenes from the city for advocating these initiatives. For instance, non-elected city officials refused to participate in our mask-wearing campaign, and we were questioned for advocating for drive-through testing and for testing of asymptomatic people.

Yet all of the initiatives listed above are commonplace nationwide now, and the city eventually played a role in implementing most of them here in Alexandria.

Mask wearing in particular, combined with physical distancing, is of renewed importance as we enter phase three of Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-VA) reopening.

In order to prevent the kind of COVID-19 case spike seen elsewhere, our city needs to aggressively encourage physical distancing and mask wearing in places where large crowds are likely to congregate, such as along Alexandria’s waterfront, along Mount Vernon Avenue and in our newly created pedestrian plaza.

Wear a mask. Save a life. And stay six feet apart.

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