The Complex Ethics of Reopening America

Since the pandemic reached U.S. shores, public health experts and government officials have stressed aggressive social distancing policies in order to “flatten the curve” and reduce the spread of COVID-19 and prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed. For months, state and local government have shuttered restaurants and bars, closed schools and “nonessential businesses,” and initiated shelter-in-place orders.

But such policies have serious economic costs, both immediate and long-term. When, and how, should social distancing measures be lifted, and what sorts of policies should replace them? Some contend these are ethical questions that require taking into account the benefits of social distancing while recognizing the trade-offs involved.

States have already loosened restrictions and begun to reopen parks, beaches, and businesses. More plans to lift social distancing measures will be announced in the coming days, weeks, and months. In an effort to inform these plans, a team of scholars from the Berman Institute of Bioethics and SNF Agora Institute has drafted a working paper called Grappling With the Ethics of Social Distancing: A Framework for Evaluating Reopening Policies. The document—authored by Justin Bernstein, Brian Hutler, Travis Rieder, Ruth Faden, Hahrie Han, and Anne Barnhill—guides users through a six-step ethical assessment of reopening policies. When and how to reopen our society is not merely a matter of epidemiology and economics, the paper begins; these vital decisions require us to raise questions about our society’s shared values: promoting well-being, liberty, and justice.

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