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Yale professors study COVID-19 protocol effectiveness as local businesses rebound from pandemic

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Posted at 5:05 AM, Dec 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-30 20:20:47-05

TAMPA, Fla. — Since day one of the COVID-19 crisis, people across the country and in the Tampa Bay area have been navigating the different safety measures state and local governments put in place to help fight the spread of COVID-19. But from mask mandates to shutdowns, which restrictions really work?

A pair of Yale professors set out to find what restrictions are and aren’t effective.

“If it weren’t for COVID-19, we would still be open. Zero doubt about that,” said Cricket Larson with Skipper’s Smokehouse.

Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa brought people together with its food and music for four decades. Today, Skipper’s stage is silent. When the pandemic hit, Larson says they temporarily shut down and even tried take out only.

Larson explains the pandemic ultimately played into the decision to permanently close Skipper’s doors.

“Our hope is that a strong group will come in, purchase the place, and let the legacy live on,” said Larson.

Skipper’s Smokehouse is one of the many businesses across the nation and in the Tampa Bay area that felt the sting from lockdown measures meant to help slow the spread of a sweeping pandemic. State and local governments have enacted protocols like mask mandates, stay at home orders, and business restrictions that forced the closing of bars, restaurants, and gyms.

“It seemed like there was a Gatling gun being taken to all businesses without anybody having any idea of what would or wouldn’t be effective,” said Matthew Spiegel, a professor of finance at the Yale School of Management. “I’m a finance professor doing economics. It seems to me, at the very least, we should know what business closures would help reduce the spread of COVID. If we’re going to close these things down, obviously all else equal, we don’t want to close businesses down that don’t do any good or might even be counterproductive.”

Alongside a research partner, the pair examined the relationship between policies in place and future growth in new deaths due to COVID-19. With findings laid out in a nearly 40 page report, the team hand-collected a database of business closures and restrictions for every county in the US since March.

“There were a few things that made a difference,” said Spiegel. “Mask mandates made a difference.”

On top of that, their study found stay-at-home orders, beach and park closures, restaurant closures, and other high-risk business shutdowns like movie theaters or bowling alleys were also effective.

They also discovered some protocols may be counterproductive, like closing spas, retail, or other low-risk businesses, with the idea that shutting one area down may inevitably flock people to another area.

Spiegel notes that policymakers have a tough job and hopes their research aids in future decision making.

“From my perspective, the big takeaway would be I would like the government to stop shutting down things that don’t look like they help: don’t shut down retail, don’t shut down spas, maintain mask mandates,” said Spiegel.

USF Health’s Dr. Jay Wolfson says there’s a balance between public health and economic health in the community. He points to a level of personal responsibility to make measures work well. Wolfson explains while officials can enact ordinances, it’s up to people to follow them.

“It really relates back to each of us as individuals to take responsibility for our lives, the lives of our family and friends, and the health of our community, economically and medically,” said Wolfson. “The buck stops here.”

In Seminole Heights at Ella’s Americana Folk Art Café, Melissa Deming says they had to rethink how they were going to survive. Deming explains they initially moved to takeout and delivery only, then socially distanced dining.

“We’ve even reached a point at this point in time where we are only operating at 50 percent capacity,” said Deming. “Even though Florida has opened up completely, we’re still trying to limit ourselves, limit capacity, keep mask mandates in order, and social distance as much as possible.”

Florida has been one of the country’s more open states during this pandemic, leaving mask mandates and other measures to many local governments. Deming says their goal remains the same: keep their doors open while staying as safe as possible.

“We strongly believe that you can do things right and you can be as safe as you possibly can, and we can all make it through it together,” said Deming.

Though the global health crisis likely has a long road ahead, those at businesses forever impacted by the COVID-19 crisis call for people to come together.

“We’re all in this community together, and the quicker we can stop the spread of the virus in Hillsborough County, in Tampa, in Florida, the better off all businesses and all families will be in the long run,” said Larson.

The Yale professors also developed a web tool compiling county by county breakdowns in the US, where you can see when a restriction was implemented and lifted. Spiegel encourages people to view their data and help improve it by submitting any corrections.

Here in the Tampa Bay Area, counties have different programs in place to help you if you are struggling during this pandemic. Hillsborough County residents can visit here, City of Tampa residents can find information here, and business owners and residents in Pinellas County have resources available to them here.