Lee Schafer
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The Minneapolis Convention Center is not even half the size of the sprawling Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, now being turned into a field hospital, but maybe it can hold 500 COVID-19 patients.

If it seems implausible that ill Minnesotans might be forced to recuperate where the annual boat show takes place, it won't be if this open-up-the-economy idea gets traction.

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President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he would love to have the country "opened up and just raring to go by Easter," which is on April 12, about 2 ½ weeks from now.

Planning is tough in this environment, of course, and concrete information is hard to come by. Yet there's plenty of reason to doubt the effectiveness of this approach — not just in controlling the disease but in actually boosting the economy.

What's being framed as a trade-off between economic vitality and containing the disease really looks like no choice at all.

Raring-to-go-by-Easter makes it more likely the COVID-19 epidemic will get out of hand — and that's what will do a lot of serious damage to the economy.

By the time ­­— heaven forbid — makeshift field hospitals fill up, who would want to go to a sports bar even if the governor allowed them to be open?

Physicians and infectious-disease experts are insisting on flattening the curve, and that's completely sensible. Through social distancing and staying home, the transmission rate of the disease will slow enough that hospitals won't be overrun and doctors won't have to choose who to treat.

How likely is it that will happen here? It has happened elsewhere with COVID-19, including in the richest and most sophisticated region of Italy.

With urgent calls for supplies for the staff of Minnesota's clinics and hospitals, healthcare providers in our region are already under stress.

One of the hard realities is that the kind of social distancing we have done so far will not contain the disease. But knocking down the transmission rate now will create the time to build our capacity to treat people and deal with the illness, such as by increasing testing and identifying clusters of infections.

Maybe part of the problem is that there hasn't been enough of a clear goal for people, just why they need to help slow down the outbreak.

A detailed presentation Wednesday from Gov. Tim Walz, though, likely filled in a lot of these details for those watching. He showed his math on how no effort to slow the infection rate would quickly lead to so many infected people that all the intensive-care capacity in hospitals for the sickest COVID-19 patients would be gone.

Yet a far bigger problem than misunderstanding the goal of slowing down infection rates seems to be downplaying the terrible effect of resuming something remotely close to business as usual too soon. That's not just on the health of friends and neighbors, either, but for the economy and life in our towns and neighborhoods.

For those with an interest in history, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919 has been discussed a lot after COVID-19 began to spread out of China. That pandemic was very different from this one, yet there's still something to be learned from it.

The Spanish flu was a cataclysm, for the country and the world, the worst coming just as World War I was in its brutal final phase. In the United States, the estimate of casualties is around 675,000 people, out of a population of about 100 million. Other parts of the world didn't fare nearly as well.

Lots of other factors contributed to the crisis, too, of course, including medical personnel swept up into the military and not having nearly the understanding of viruses we have now.

Yet one of the main factors that made this crisis so much worse, in the U.S. and elsewhere, was a failure to tell people the truth, as described in a powerful short history from 2017 in the Smithsonian Magazine.

There was a war on. Maintaining "morale" seemed to be a higher priority.

In Philadelphia, physicians urged cancellation of a big parade to promote Liberty bonds, fearing rampant transmission if many thousands of Philadelphians crowded along the streets. The parade went ahead. Not long after, on the worst day of the epidemic in Philadelphia, more than 750 people died.

As the epidemic continued, trust collapsed. Neighbors allowed kids down the block to go hungry, afraid to carry over food. More than half of the shipyard workers in the Northeast, called essential to the ongoing war effort, stopped coming to work.

Trust is vital in any sort of market economy. It's hard to gain and easily lost.

Essentially, what consumers and businesses do with each other is trade. Everybody has to trust each other for it to work. It's difficult to think of any more fundamental trust issue than wondering if the people you trade with can make you sick.

If the outbreak isn't flattened and too many people seem to be getting sick at once, what would keep healthy people from wanting to steer clear of anybody, in a store, workplace or anywhere else?

Then, of course, they don't go out. There will be fewer people deciding to go to work, spending would go only to the essentials and of course that would mean slumping revenue for businesses.

That's not economic recovery.

So stay home, Minnesota.

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302