Indiana, Kentucky govs at odds over reopening economy… or when dining out becomes an experiment

Are you just dying to cross the river to Southern Indiana for a sit-down meal of tacos al pastor and cold beers or maybe one of those delicious big steaks from that swanky joint?

Dying, because, yup — it might kill you. Sure, that sounds dire, but read along.

Indiana is opening restaurants at half capacity Monday, May 11. In Indianapolis, the date is May 18, so scarfing down that Reuben to die from at Shapiro’s deli will have to wait.

Indiana already allows gatherings of as many as 25 people in most counties. Malls and other nonessential retailers may open at half capacity. Churches may hold services with no limits.

By comparison, Kentucky is opening some businesses Monday, including manufacturing, construction and horse racing (no fans). Churches and retail are back March 20. Restaurants are back in business May 22 at a third capacity and unlimited outside seating with distancing. And 10-person social gatherings on May 25. June 1 reopens gyms and fitness centers and movie theaters, and campgrounds on June 11. The goal is to reopen childcare June 15. Bars may be back possibly in July.

Here is what Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, had to say about reopening Indiana for business with such relative haste: 

“Your well-being affects not just your health but also your ability to provide for yourself,” Holcomb said in an Indianapolis Star story. “It’s finding that sweet spot. It’s a little bit of science and it’s a little bit of art.”

Science and art. He really said that about how he is approaching your mortality. 

You can’t blame him, really.

As the tug of war between Healthy at Home and Wealthy at Work takes place in Indiana, Kentucky and nationally, no one knows for certain how fast should we reopen vs. how many people will die as a result.

“Georgia’s Experiment in Human Sacrifice” is the headline on a recent Atlantic story about that state, which opened many businesses April 24.

Governors, understandably, are struggling to understand what their own state’s numbers and trends really mean for the future and how much to trust those fancy models and forecasts from universities.

During his What I Did On My Coronacation Slideshow on Tuesday, Gov. Andy compared the economy’s restart to gambling.

“At the end of the day, every governor is responsible for their people. I think we are all trying to make the best decisions we can. And time will tell which ones are the right decisions. But I would rather be remembered as someone who was measured and who made decisions that he believed would protect his people as opposed to one that gambled on going too early, too big, too fast,” he said.

You have to wonder whether Gov. Andy is bending to the libertarian, crybaby demands of his own constituents, including from state Rep. Savannah Maddox, the Sarah Palin-Alex Jones mashup who likes to pose with white supremacists and thinks she is immortal (“nobody’s ever going to force me to get a vaccine”)?

Did tRump pressure him? 

Is it because Kentucky is plumb running out of money (it has forecast a budget deficit of at much as $500 million).

“Am I receiving pressure from the federal government to reopen? No,” Gov. Andy said. “And does the budget push me to reopen? Also, no. We just believe we are at the point in time where we have got to reopen but in a slow and gradual way. And I think when you look at our plan versus many others, we are being careful.”

Careful. Both Gov. Andy and Holcomb said they are being careful.

Each reiterates that as their states reopen, they could reimpose restrictions if the virus makes a comeback. (Just like during the 1918 flu epidemic when Kentucky reopened businesses and churches, which led to a second spike of influenza, which led to the second round of closures.)

Gov. Andy said the phasing and slow rollout will allow Kentucky to catch a virus reemergence quickly.

But how will Kentucky and Indiana know the virus is reasserting itself unless it can test, trace and quarantine effectively? Gov. Andy keeps detailing how the state’s testing is increasing enough to allow the reopening, and it is working on contract tracing. Yet, it still hasn’t met the White House threshold of 100 tests a day per 100,000 residents.

Perhaps worse, Harvard University’s Global Health Institute, in an NPR story, said that even what the White House recommends for testing is far from adequate, and most states are not close to having enough testing capacity to reopen. 

“Just nine states are near or have exceeded the testing minimums estimated by Harvard,” NPR reported (one that has is Tennessee). 

Further, for many states, the ratio of tests conducted with those that come back positive exceeds the World Health Organization’s benchmark of 10%. That indicates whether states are missing infections.

Kentucky? Harvard says the state currently averages 1,229 tests a day — “far fewer than the estimated minimum needed by May 15. In the past week, 16.8% of tests have come back positive. This exceeds the recommended rate of 10% or lower.”

Indiana? It “currently averages 4,135 tests per day — far fewer than the estimated minimum needed by May 15. In the past week, 16.2% of tests have come back positive. This exceeds the recommended rate of 10% or lower.”

There is more bad news in the news.

Here is the headline in the Indianapolis Star this morning: “Indiana reopening projected to increase COVID-19 deaths by 543%.”  

The director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington said the model’s dire predictions “reflect the effect of premature relaxation of social distancing, which has a substantial effect in some states.”


Holcomb’s spokesperson played down the forecast: “Models are projections based on the data selected, which is why the state looks at many models,” his spokeswoman, Rachel Hoffmeyer, said in a statement.

That same study found that Kentucky’s deaths would increase from 283 now to 537 by Aug. 1, about what it forecast in its April 22 study and based on the state’s plan for reopening.

Too bad we share a border.

Wait, aren’t the two states supposed to be working together? Gov. Andy said in April that each state would “sign off on any of their plans,” The Courier Journal reported.

On Tuesday, Gov. Andy said he had not talked with Holcomb about its out-of-step reopening.

How can that be?

“Still working to connect with Gov. Holcomb about the differences in Indiana and Kentucky and especially on the restaurant side, which we are trying to make plans for and we are working on right now,” he said.

Gov. Andy beseeched us to not travel to Southern Indiana for tacos at the table. Because… well, we are “better” than Indiana, or some such.

“If we are in Kentucky,” he said, “we are doing this better than just about every other state. Please don’t cross state lines to do something we need to gradually reopen. And today’s numbers, well, we still believe we can move forward on Health Work, but it ought to be a wakeup call that there still is a very dangerous virus out there. We don’t deny that at all.”

Yet, despite Gov. Andy’s assertions that we are “better” and gradually reopening is the ticket to health and prosperity for Kentucky… he is not following his own rules.

On April 20, Gov. Andy had said that Kentucky would reopen only after it met several benchmarks, including “14 days where cases are decreasing” and “Increased testing capacity and contact tracing.”

At the time, he said: “We believe our approach is very much in line with the White House. The plan put out by the White House has certain thresholds that states should meet before we start taking certain steps. The benchmarks are being driven by public health. We are all on the same page about what keeps people safe.”

Yet, Gov. Andy, announced Tuesday that Kentucky had suffered 14 more deaths, a tie for the second-highest number of deaths in a single day. That brought the total to 275.

And, not including new cases at the Green River prison, Kentucky reported 316 more cases — the second-highest daily number of new cases.

Reporter: “Governor, we do not appear to be meeting the goals that you laid out, so what has changed in your thinking?”

Gov. Andy smiled and nodded his head, like a student who had prepared for the question and knew the answer: 

“I believe that we can safely engage at Phase 1 at Healthy at Work. Here is the reason,” he said, then explaining the state had increased its testing vastly. “I believe we can significantly increase our testing. The components are there, and for the first time we have the materials to do it.”

As for the 14-day decline, which is not happening, he said:

“We know if we are testing vulnerable populations, we know if we go into a prison or a nursing home, we are going to have a lot of cases. So, we have to look at that not totally independently but in one bucket. Then what we have are a general plateau of cases while we are testing more people. And in the general population, we believe right now it is at a level where if we take all of these precautions we can do this safely. But we are watching the numbers every day.”

A “plateau.”


So, whom do we trust?

Jeffersonville Mayor Mike Moore told The Courier Journal he trusts Holcomb:

“If the governor says it’s safe, it’s safe,” Moore said. “I would welcome anybody that wants to come over from Louisville, we’ve got that walking bridge open for a reason. We look at Kentucky as our good neighbors, friends and potential customers.”

Blind faith.

Louisville Mayor Greg called the push by states to reopen quickly an “enormous experiment”:

“What we’re experiencing reflects what’s happening around the country as some people and some elected officials seem eager to participate in what’s really an enormous experiment to see what happens when you start opening stores, businesses and restaurants during a pandemic,” the Mayor said. “That’s what it is — an experiment because we don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ll see in a week or so what the results are from Georgia and other states

that moved more aggressively.”

“The data tell us that it’s just too soon to do things like go to restaurants and malls. Don’t get me wrong — I love our local restaurants. I get carryout almost every day. But the truth is that even at reduced capacity, an indoor dining area is like a buffet for the virus,” the mayor said.

So, on Monday, when you think about sitting down for a taco in Southern Indiana, consider whether it is worth the gamble, whether you want to be part of an enormous experiment… and whether you trust art and science to keep you well.