The Corner

Politics & Policy

Public Behavior Led the Way on COVID-19 Lockdowns — and It Will Lead Us Out

Anthony Fauci speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., June 30, 2020. ( Al Drago/Pool via Reuters)

Watching interviews with Anthony Fauci has become a cringeworthy experience. Journalists ask him questions on returning to normal as if he were some sort of grand high exalted mystic ruler who controls every aspect of human existence. On Sunday, Fauci told NBC that he couldn’t predict when people would be able to have indoor weddings. 

What makes this increasingly obnoxious is not just the arbitrariness of Fauci’s pronouncements (he recently conceded that guidance on travel for fully vaccinated people was a “judgment call” by the CDC), but the deference that he and other health officials are granted by the media. Last week, when the CDC released new guidance on those who had been fully immunized, CNN infamously tweeted, “The CDC releases guidelines giving limited freedoms to people fully vaccinated against Covid-19.”  

This is absurd. In reality, public-health officials provide advice on actions that they believe will reduce the risk of spreading infectious diseases. But it is up to political leaders, and ultimately the people, to balance that advice against other personal and societal priorities. This is a point Fauci himself would occasionally make last year. 

Though the media want us to wait for some sort of green light from Fauci to get back to normal, in reality, Americans themselves are going to lead the way in returning life to normal.

It’s worth recalling that over a year ago now, Americans began changing their behavior before there were widespread restrictions on various activities. While “Fifteen Days to Slow the Spread” began a year ago, on March 16, air travel began its decline in early March (February 28, 2020 being the last day in which the number travelers screened by the TSA exceeded the prior year). Similarly, OpenTable observed that restaurant reservations began dropping in early March, and by the middle of the month (before the national social-distancing guidance was issued), reservations had already been nearly cut in half. When some states began lifting restrictions in last spring, it initially only led to a small increase in people going out. 

Likewise, I suspect that the return to normal will be driven by the public. With cases and hospitalizations having dropped dramatically and millions of people getting vaccine doses each day, more and more people will begin to ease up. Those who receive two doses are likely going to start to resume regular activities. They aren’t going to wait until July 4 for President Biden to give them the all clear to hang out with their families.

Of course, there is a certain point at which actual restrictions have to be lifted for things to truly get back to normal. People can’t send their children to schools that aren’t open or hold large indoor weddings in localities that are still enforcing capacity limits. But as people become more active in their personal lives and comfortable interacting socially, it will put more pressure on state and local officials to relax restrictions. And as restrictions lift without an accompanying surge in hospital visits, it will create a certain momentum that will force more openings. 

When “15 Days to Slow the Spread” was announced a year ago, the idea was that we couldn’t prevent COVID-19 from spreading, but it was important to make sure that the caseload was spread out over time so that the hospital system didn’t collapse. The virus was new, and we had no known treatments. Now, hospitalizations are down 70 percent from the January peak. And even Johnson & Johnson, the FDA-authorized vaccine that has proven less effective at preventing infections, is virtually 100 percent effective at preventing hospitalizations and death. As the implications of this set in, Fauci is going to become an increasingly less relevant factor in people’s lives.


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