A One-Size-Fits-All Reopening Makes No Sense for America | Opinion

The nation has been in lockdown for more than 30 days, and the toll on human life has been much higher in some parts of the country than others. The virus has been especially hard on New York City and the surrounding area, where the losses have been staggering. And heartbreaking.

Of the more than 13,000 deaths reported in the entire state of New York so far, about 10,000 were in New York City. Include the deaths in the commuter counties of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and you get over 16,000 for the larger New York City area, about 40 percent of the nation's more than 40,000 deaths.

It's a tragedy, and Americans across the country weep. New York City is our nation's real capital, and certainly our cultural capital. It's where we all go to experience the theater, the arts, museums, restaurants and so much more. It is, as the saying goes, the greatest city in not just America but the world.

But as we look ahead to a return to normal life, it is critical that we factor into our thinking—and public policy decisions—the disparate health outcomes of this virus and the very different ways Americans choose to live. Because a one-size-fits-all transition makes no sense in a nation as big and diverse as ours.

The data and facts, although still emerging, tell a story. The death rate per 100,000 people in the states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are, respectively, 66, 43 and 29—and they rank, respectively, first, second and third in the country, as of April 20. The vast majority of those deaths came from New York City itself, with a death rate of 119 per 100,000 people. The commuter counties in the tri-state area don't fare much better: New Jersey's Essex and Bergen counties have 95 and 85 deaths per 100,000. New York's Nassau, Westchester and Rockland counties have 121, 89 and 88 deaths per 100,000

Compare those numbers to the death rates of other populous states, like Florida (four), California (three), and Texas (two). Thirty-five of the 50 states have a death rate of five or under per 100,000 citizens. Most of our nation's biggest cities have radically different outcomes, too: Los Angeles has six deaths per 100,000 people, San Diego and San Francisco are at two. Dallas and Houston are also at two deaths per 100,000, proving that population density alone does not explain the lethality of this virus.

There are many reasons why a disease like this spread so quickly and violently in New York City. It's a truly international city, with three large airports seeing over 13.5 million travelers from around the world in 2018. And it's a crowded city. The borough of Manhattan has a population density of 70,826 people per square mile. Living spaces, working spaces and eating spaces are extremely cramped. (Anyone who has ever stepped foot in a Manhattan hotel room knows what I'm talking about.)

But what distinguishes New York City from even most of the other big cities in the nation is the sheer dependence on mass transit to get around. More than 5.8 million people cram into the city's subway every single day. An additional 1.8 million more board buses for their daily commutes. Millions more travel on trains and buses from the suburbs. Just think of the Port Authority bus terminal or Grand Central Station, a landmark piece of architecture, but also a breeding ground for contagious disease.

And that's not counting the biggest transportation system of them all: NYC's elevator system has a staggering 1,570 miles of elevator shafts (there are a mere 840 miles of subway tracks), and more than 35 million people a day cram into those small cars to get around.

Though most Americans love to visit New York City, we choose not to live in spaces that tight. In places where people are compelled to crowd within inches of one another going to and from work and play. Only about 27 percent of Americans describe their neighborhood as urban.

We choose not to live there because we like where we live. More important, we like how we live. Though it's been every urban progressive planner's dream to get Americans to abandon big homes, SUVs, yards, grills, pools, ATVs and boats, and squeeze us into small apartments and mass transit systems like New York's, most Americans have rejected that notion. Instead, we have doubled down on our personal space. The average square footage of an American home was a mere 1,600 square feet in 1973. Today, it is 2,687. And over 85 percent of all workers still get to their jobs by private car.

Many Americans practice social distancing on general principle. We love our space and the outdoors. We love the open road and adore packing up the kids and driving to even less populated places, where we can camp and fish and hunt and swim. We visit the mountains, lakes, oceans and, for my family, the spectacular and never-ending Gulf Coast beaches of Alabama and Florida, where we never dream of laying down our chairs within 6 feet of another family.

"Overwhelmingly, suburbs are where most growth is happening," demographer Joel Kotkin wrote in an op-ed for the Orange County Register. "Since 2010 suburbs and exurbs have produced roughly 80 percent of all new jobs." The coronavirus crisis, it turns out, may just add to the attraction of suburbanization. Because one thing is certain going forward: practicing social distancing in a place like New York City will prove much more difficult than, say, the suburbs of America, and growing metropolitan cities like that of Raleigh, Orlando, Boise and Nashville. Not to mention the exurbs and rural parts of the country.

Beach coronavirus
An empty life guard chair is seen on April 17 in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry announced that Duval County's beaches would reopen, but only for restricted hours and only to be used for swimming, running, surfing, walking, biking, fishing and taking care of pets. Sam Greenwood/Getty

One thing is certain: As the virus curve shows signs of flattening in New York City, it's important to remember that vast parts of this country went relatively untouched by COVID-19.

What wasn't untouched was the economy of our towns, counties and states. The finances of our families, businesses, churches and nonprofits.

It's now time for the hard talk of trade-offs, risk-taking and the very real living choices Americans make across this great country. It's time for governors and local leaders to look at the data, talk to health experts and make decisions that make sense for their people.

The hard choices Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York will be making are sure to be different than the ones Governor Kevin Stitt makes in Oklahoma. Or the ones Governor Tate Reeves makes Mississippi. They'll be looking at different data sets, and the very different ways we live, pray, play and work.

Americans are craving, more than anything, to be Americans again. To live with calculated and reasonable risk. For some, it will be safer and easier to return to normal life than others. But we all want our spaces back. We all want our lives back.

Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.