• Fri. Apr 16th, 2021

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A Wave of Reopenings

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By now, many of the basic facts about how Covid-19 spreads are clear. People tend to become infected by inhaling droplets that come from the mouths and noses of others. Crowded indoor spaces — where infected droplets can linger in the air — are the most dangerous places. They are particularly dangerous when people are not wearing masks.

Yet consider some of the new policies that state governments have put in place this week:

  • Texas and Mississippi both announced they would lift their mask mandates (following Iowa and Montana, which did so last month) and allow businesses to operate at full capacity.

  • Massachusetts removed capacity limits on restaurants.

  • South Carolina will allow gatherings of more than 250 people.

In announcing the changes, Tate Reeves, the governor of Mississippi, wrote: “It is time!” Greg Abbott, Texas’ governor, said, “State mandates are no longer needed,” while adding that he hoped Texans would practice “personal vigilance.”

People’s desire to return to normal life is understandable. If anything, many medical experts believe that the country has been too slow to restart some activities, like outdoor socializing and, above all, in-person school with precautions. The costs of an unending shutdown — in lost learning, lost earnings and mental-health problems — do sometimes outweigh the reduced risk of Covid transmission.

But many of the changes that went into effect yesterday are different, these same experts say: They represent a rushed return to normalcy, rather than a careful weighing of costs and benefits.

“Ugh,” Tara C. Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University, wrote, saying that the Texas changes could cause a rebound in cases. Dr. Leana Wen of George Washington University called the lifting of mask mandates an irresponsible mistake, because masks let businesses and schools safely remain open. Dr. Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine told The Houston Chronicle: “I would recommend holding off. Let’s wait another two weeks.”

It’s true that the Covid news over the past month has been enormously positive. Regular readers know that I think journalists and scientists have sometimes been too dour — to the point of presenting a misleading picture, especially about the vaccines. Still, there is a big difference between a less severe problem and a solved problem.

The pandemic is a long way from over. The number of confirmed new cases has stopped falling in the past two weeks, both in the U.S. and worldwide, perhaps because of the spread of highly contagious new virus variants. In the U.S., the average daily number of cases is higher than at almost any point last summer. Over the past week, more than 2,000 Americans have died each day on average — worse than any point last summer.

“Please hear me clearly,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the head of the C.D.C., said on Monday. “At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained.”

Politicians defended the new round of changes by pointing to the sharp decline in cases since January. And that decline does justify a loosening of some restrictions, many epidemiologists say. It’s even possible that a continuing increase in vaccinations will be powerful enough to overcome the rush to loosen. Nobody can be sure of Covid’s future path.

The question is which risks bring enough benefit to be worth taking. Does it make sense to give people permission to shed their masks? Or crowd into enclosed spaces where they will exchange droplets of breath?

Most scientists say no — and say that the changes have increased the chances of avoidable infection, illness and death.

Lives Lived: Raised in segregation-era Atlanta, Vernon Jordan first glimpsed the world of power and influence that had largely been denied to Black Americans while he was waiting tables at a private club. He became a civil-rights leader, a Washington lawyer and an adviser to presidents. He died at 85. (We recommend this 2017 podcast interview with Jordan.)

A 37-year-old song has helped drive a comeback for a genre of music from Japan called city pop.

A YouTube video of the track, “Plastic Love” by Mariya Takeuchi, has garnered more than 56 million views since 2017. For many young fans, it served as an entry point to city pop, as Cat Zhang explains in Pitchfork. The genre is from the ’70s and ’80s and was influenced by R&B and jazz. It often pairs shimmery vocals with funky production, and the result is an effervescent sound.

City pop “promises a romantic escape across the Pacific that’s somewhat detached from reality, feeding the imaginations of young homebodies scrolling online,” Zhang writes.

The YouTube algorithm is partly behind the genre’s online resurgence. Calming, atmospheric music — which can be played in the background on repeat while users work — is popular on the platform. Many of those listeners end up discovering city pop in their video recommendations. As Rolling Stone reported, a Reddit user trying to identify the source of the genre’s sudden popularity wrote, “citypop is also known as youtuberecommendationcore.”

The songs also reach new audiences through TikTok. One trend on the platform, Zhang writes, had users of Japanese descent playing a 1979 city pop song for their mothers, who beamed and sang along in response.