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What I’m most amazed by when I look at photos from the reopened parks at Walt Disney World is how empty they look. I don’t think the parks should have reopened at all, but when I look at the photos, they do not viscerally induce panic in me. In addition to being required to wear masks except when eating or drinking in a stationary and socially distanced location, guests and staff appear to be far apart. Disney guidebook author Len Testa told USA Today that he estimated the Magic Kingdom park was operating at just 17 percent of its usual guest volume on July 11, reopening day. I marvel that Disney thinks it can lose less money by reopening the parks with these guest volumes than it would if it simply left them closed.
Looking at these pictures makes me only more pessimistic about the idea that we could have anything like normal operation of schools this fall.
A lot of people ask questions in the form of “If we can reopen X, why can’t we reopen schools?” Often the answer is that we should not have reopened X, especially when X is bars. Sometimes it’s because X, while less important to society than schools, entails a lot less risk of spreading disease; when you go to a Best Buy, you don’t spend seven hours there, engage in close contact with other customers, and eat lunch. But a third answer is that X is operating in such a heavily modified form that opening schools in the manner in which you have opened X would be a lot like not opening schools at all.
A cornerstone of safer reopening plans for stores and offices is to reduce the number of people in them. When I shopped at Home Depot last month, I had to wait in line for half an hour to get in so the store could achieve a lower density of customers than usual. And a Home Depot is ordinarily a lot less crowded than a school building. Taking the reopening models we’ve applied to businesses and applying them to schools necessarily entails greatly reducing the number of students schools can serve at one time — which is why President Trump, who desperately wants schools to reopen with full, in-person schedules, has bristled at CDC school-reopening guidelines that lead to this obvious conclusion.
This is just another fact that reinforces what a missed opportunity it is that we have failed to develop competencies to stop and control coronavirus outbreaks as a bridge to effective medical treatments. Other countries, with much lower levels of coronavirus in the community, will reopen schools this fall. In the U.S., schools will largely be limited to online instruction — not because schools are less important than other institutions in our society but because we failed to create the conditions that would make it possible for them to operate more normally.