Things left lying around

Some snippets and updates on some issues

Welcome to Plugging the Gap (my email newsletter about Covid-19 and its economics). In case you don’t know me, I’m an economist and professor at the University of Toronto. I have written lots of books including, most recently, on Covid-19. You can follow me on twitter (@joshgans) or subscribe to this email newsletter here.


Today’s newsletter is a catch-all with some updates including a wastewater success, Boris Johnson’s payments to get people out, changes in movie theatres, which mask is the best mask, and suggestions for watching.

Wastewater update

Following on from my post about using sewage for surveillance testing on Covid-19, here is a success story from the University of Arizona. From the Washington Post:

As 5,000 students prepared for move-in day at the University of Arizona this week, the school warned they would be tested periodically for the coronavirus. One test, though, doesn’t involve a nose swab. The university is regularly screening the sewage from each dorm, searching for traces of the virus.

On Thursday, officials said the technique worked — and possibly prevented a sizable outbreak on campus. When a wastewater sample from one dorm came back positive this week, the school quickly tested all 311 people who live and work there and found two asymptomatic students who tested positive. They were quickly quarantined. …

On Tuesday at the University of Arizona, that screening process found signs of the virus in the wastewater from a dorm called Likins Hall. Although all students living in the dorm had to pass antigen tests before moving in, the second screening after the wastewater alert found the two positive cases. ….

“You think about if we had missed it, if we had waited until they became symptomatic and they stayed in that dorm for days, or a week, or the whole incubation period, how many other people would have been infected?” he said. …

Thomas said that as some colleges bring students back on campus, testing wastewater from dorms could be an effective technique — along with individual testing and contact tracing — to manage the spread of the virus.

“The proof is there that it works, and it does seem to be a very sensitive approach,” Thomas said. “I think it’s a proactive way of trying to manage the potential for infection on campus.”

Great news.

At-Home tests

Following on from my concern about regulator stickiness, Health Canada has changed course regarding at-home tests. It will consider it now.

Health Canada is willing to consider approving home COVID-19 tests to screen for the virus, a spokesman for the minister of health told Reuters, in a win for public health experts and doctors who have argued that frequent and inexpensive testing could beat back the pandemic.

The health ministry had previously said it was concerned that people might misuse home tests or misinterpret the results.

“In response to the evolution of the pandemic, Health Canada is now considering applications for home testing devices for screening purposes,” said Cole Davidson, spokesman for the minister of health said in a statement.

This is good news as it shows a willingness to be more broad-minded.

That said, I have concerns about at-home tests being relied upon. Like masks, tests are done solely for the benefit of others. You test positive, you isolate and others are helped but not you. The problem is that at-home tests will tell you if you are infected and that will cause you to no longer worry about your own risks. Thus, we rely on people being good citizens which is not an assumption I would base a big push to get rid for the virus on. I think at-home testing should be allowed (people can use them to assess whether they are likely to be isolated later) but we need to also have other tests to really deal with it.

Incentives to go to restaurants

In my post about leisure, I showed that hospitality industries have been hit hard and may take the longest to recover. The UK has been ahead on this issue and is subsidising restaurant meals. You get 50% of the meal (excluding alcohol) up to ten pounds per person. What’s the impact of that? Take a look at Open Table data.

Looks like they may have overshot. It turns out, incentives work. Will be interesting to see how this one continues to play out.

Going to the movies

The Gans household has been availing itself of the options not to go to the movies purchasing Bill and Ted Face the Music (better than the second one) for $20 and Mulan (good but not great) for $30. (See my earlier post). But with WonderWoman 1984 and Black Widow on the horizon, we may want to go to the movies. Preferably sans masks and people.

Well, economics to the rescue. Here is a video from Craig Palsson who bought out a theatre to see Tenet.

So I looked into this. Cineplex in Canada will allow you to take out a whole theatre for a new release film for $15 a person with a 20 person minimum. But I wondered if we could do better. Here is a seating plan for last Tuesday in the middle of the day.

Well, no one has bought tickets (yet). But say I was very risk-averse. Then I could buy 23 tickets (one on each of the doubles there). Tuesday these cost $8 each so I would be able to get the theatre for $184.

The advantage of controlling the situation is that you can invite people in your bubble and other people you know haven’t been running around getting exposed. If you really wanted to, you could have everyone tested beforehand — something that is at least easy to do in Canada. This is worth thinking about.

Before I leave this a thought: what if Rise of Skywalker were coming out this December? Would it be worth the Covid risk? Suffice it to say, I would have been pretty ticked off as I left the theatre. I was but would have been more so. In other words, it all could have been worse. #silverlining

What to Watch

On that score, I can recommend the following things to watch:

  • Irresistible: a political economy directed by Jon Stewart. Really great and compelling. Thoughtful and fun. The best movie I have seen all year.

  • What we do in the Shadows: a mockumentary about vampires by the folks who did Flight of the Concords back in the day. I have not heard about this anywhere and was very surprised to come across it. Very, very funny.

  • Ted Lasso: Apple TV+ has wonderful shows and the best comedy thus far is Ted Lasso about an American football coach who is recruited to coach premier league soccer. It is a perfect counterpoint to everything else going on in the world.

  • Douglas: This is Hannah Gadsby’s recent comedy special. We saw it live and jumped at it again when it was on Netflix. Just perfect.

My Favourite Mask

Ever since the health authorities pivoted and said that masks were good, I have been on a mission to find the best one. Here are the ones I have tried:

Ministry of Supply ($50)

The first mask I tried that I felt I could wear all day. Can put in replaceable filters. Is 3D printed whatever that means?

Under Armour ($30)

Very comfortable. Was my go-to mask for a little while.

Everbrand ($33)

Saw an ad on Facebook. Advertised comfortable and viral off! Was really comfortable but you look like a puffin.

Cheekies ($35)

This one came from a Twitter recommendation. Looked comfortable and breathable. Was both of these things. But didn’t dominate my top choice.

Sheertex ($20)

Sheertex are a Creative Destruction Lab graduate who finally cracked the science of making an unbreakable stocking. They now have masks. It is simple and very comfortable, strong and breathable. I’m an investor but not so biased as to want to skewer mask recommendations — this is not where they make their money.

My pick

Sheertex won out for me. It is light, adjustable and I can wear it comfortably for the longest time. Bought 10 of them so everyone could have one and swap them out to wash. The fabric is such that I am sure they will last the entire pandemic. The only downside is the adjustable strap means it can’t be used when getting a haircut. I switch to my Under Armour for that.


What did I miss?