California governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order closing the beaches of Orange County, Calif., is what you get when you govern by Twitter: A news photo showing a crowded Orange County beach makes the social-media rounds, provoking the predictable outrage storm; Governor Newsom, rather than investigate, issues an executive order to placate the social-media circus; that executive order is based on powers that the governor does not enjoy, and the Democratic governor singles out the historically Republican cities of Orange County.
It is not even clear that there was a real problem for Newsom to solve.
One photograph did indeed show an Orange County beach looking like spring break; other photographs showed a much more dispersed and socially distanced crowd. Without taking a deep dive into the very interesting online discussion of the characteristics of telephoto lenses (the Orange County Register photo is getting something like the Dan Rather treatment; it was not doctored, but it also does not tell the full story), making big public-policy decisions based on a single photograph and on the social-media reaction to that photograph is a poor way to proceed.
Orange County is, in reality, faring better than much of California in the epidemic: As of this writing, it has suffered 52 COVID-19 deaths out of a population of more than 3 million, substantially fewer than nearby counties such as Riverside and San Bernardino, even though those have smaller populations. Orange County seems to have been doing reasonably well without any heavy-handed diktats from Newsom. The parks in question include, as a lawsuit against Newsom’s order points out, those under the control of the cities in question, Huntington Beach and Dana Point. (National Review Institute trustee David L. Bahnsen is involved in that lawsuit.)
We would like to see scrupulous compliance with social-distancing practices. We also believe that people are more likely to accept the legitimacy of those rules when the decisions governing them are made in a way that is reasonable and democratic rather than unreasoning and autocratic, when decisions are made at the local level and respect the genuine diversity among our communities, and when those entrusted with the extraordinary authority of emergency powers are not themselves acting out of hysteria or in response to hysteria.
We very strongly suspect that having figures such as Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot bellowing at teenagers, “We will take you to jail — period” probably does more harm than good. The hectoring and bullying style that has too often accompanied the implementation of social distancing inspires more defiance than the rules themselves do. And such threats bring with them an obvious problem: Make good on them and you are endangering lives with the enforced closeness of arrest and jail; fail to make good on them and the credibility of local government is eroded. Best not to put yourself into such a bind to begin with. There will be some noncompliance, but a domineering approach is likely to make that problem worse rather than better.
We also believe with the National Recreation and Park Association that parks and other outdoor spaces can be used safely and responsibly. As NRPA puts it: “We believe that many parks, trails and open spaces can continue to be used in a safe manner that allows people to enjoy the mental and physical health benefits these spaces provide. In all instances, we recommend people follow local, state and national ordinances and guidelines regarding the use of these spaces and recognize that these vary from community to community.” In big, diverse states such as California and Texas, it is far more sensible to push these decisions to the municipal level to the extent that doing so is possible. There is every reason to believe that the authorities in Orange County are competent to see to the health and hygiene policies of Orange County and its public places.
And what is true of Orange County is true of many other communities around the country. It is precisely at difficult times such as these that cool heads and a light touch are needed — and those have been lacking in too many states and cities. There is a difference between social distancing and house arrest, and Governor Newsom owes it to his constituents to stay on the right side of that line.