Economy & Business

Even ‘Targeted’ Lockdowns Have Costs

Business owners protest to remain open despite state-mandated restrictions in San Diego, Calif., November 16, 2020. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
The ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy can be capricious and invite confusion.

On Black Friday, the number of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. reached a record daily high of 205,460, according to Johns Hopkins University data. States across the country are beginning to tighten their restrictions on outdoor gatherings, dining, and retail shopping, while also closing public schools. President-elect Joe Biden, however, has promised his administration would not issue national lockdowns.

“I’m going to shut down the virus, that’s what I’m going to shut down. I’ll say it again: No national shutdown. No national shutdown,” Biden said in a recent news conference. He continued, “Every region, every area, every community can be different. So there’s no circumstance that I can see which would require a total national shutdown.”

On November 13, a top member of Biden’s COVID-19 task force, Dr. Vivek Murthy, argued for a more precise approach to curbing the spread. “We’re not in a place where we’re saying shut the whole country down,” Murthy said, “[We’ve] got to be more targeted.”

Murthy continued, “If we don’t do that, what you’re going to find is that people will become even more fatigued. Schools won’t be open to children and the economy will be hit harder, so we’ve got to follow science, but we’ve also got to be more precise.”

It is a hopeful sign that Biden’s task force is not fully on board with Dr. Michael Osterholm’s four-to-six week lockdown proposal, to be sure. But the lockdown is a strategy that should be reconsidered on the federal and state level as a whole, even with rising cases.

First, the strategy’s efficacy will not suddenly improve because a state government goes “whack-a-mole” on certain counties or zip codes whose case numbers are spiking. Lockdowns have had a questionable effect in mitigating the spread of the virus (California, a state with the harshest restrictions, now faces a caseload of over 1 million). Epidemiologist Adam Kucharski told Wired, “Targeted measures can end up chasing the outbreak wider and wider, to the point where restrictions are equivalent to a broader blanket policy.” Moreover, in a preprint paper from August, researchers cited the “heterogeneity” of inconsistent pandemic control policies as inefficient. “Where certain venues see substantial increases in attendance while others close, suggests that closure can cause individuals to find an open venue, even if that requires longer-distance travel,” the paper says.

Further, the “whack-a-mole” lockdown strategy can be capricious and invite confusion. A local county is not a light switch that governors can flicker on and off. Small business owners who survived the first deluge of lockdowns are barely staying afloat as it is. Slapping on more restrictions based on an infection rate standard set by public health officials spells countless, costly logistical problems. Closing down schools on short notice, as was the case in New York City before a partial reversal, is costly for students, first and foremost, and working parents, who must adjust to new schedules.

Finally, many of our leaders have lost credibility through galling acts of hypocrisy and mendacity. Their actions erode trust in local government, sowing seeds for civic discord. Mayor Lori Lightfoot violated her own mandates to get a haircut, and spoke to a mass of Chicagoans with a bullhorn after the presidential election. Governor Andrew Cuomo has profited by writing a book about his intrepid leadership during the pandemic, an act of self-deluding revisionism. Last but not least, California governor Gavin Newsom was caught violating his own restrictions by attending a birthday dinner at the French Laundry, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Yountville. If leaders cannot maintain at least a semblance of credibility by upholding their own mandates, then their citizens will grow more jaded, dejected, and desperate. The lockdown protests in Europe, which have turned violent in some cases, should serve as a timely warning for American politicians and health officials.

The lockdowns damaged economies and small businesses. Their unintended consequences — of which there are many — will linger for years. In the meantime, citizens young and old suffer already. Though the vaccine is on the horizon, leaders should be judicious even with targeted lockdowns while we await its arrival.