An Ethics Framework for the COVID-19 Reopening Process

As some political leaders are fond of saying, reopening society after months of social distancing is not like flipping a switch. Reopening is a process. It will extend over many, many months. Policy makers will need to continuously re-evaluate whether the guidance they have set for the next stage of reopening still makes sense. Also, for each stage, they will have to decide not only the when, but the how of each reopening decision. When public schools open in the fall, for example, how exactly should that happen? And, at any stage of the reopening process, if cases or hospitalizations exceed a concerning benchmark, decision makers will have to decide which social distancing policies should be re-imposed. This document presents a framework for ethically evaluating the cascade of policy decisions that define the COVID-19 reopening process. These decisions will not and should not be made based on the science alone. Nor should they be driven by the economics alone. Rather, these decisions are best understood as a series of tradeoffs that reflect many shared values in our society, including not only our shared interests in health and economic flourishing, but also our shared interest in other aspects of well-being, and in liberty and justice. These values, and how to think about them in concert, are the subject of ethics. The framework developed here is specifically designed to aid government decision-makers at the state and local levels. Aspects of the framework may also be useful for decision-makers in a variety of private-sector institutions, including manufacturers, retailers, houses of worship, and private schools and universities.
COVID-19, reopening, ethics, reasoning, public policy, public health, well-being, liberty, justice, legitimacy