The Morning Jolt


The Problems with Restoring Lockdowns

Healthcare workers walk through the Texas Medical Center during a shift change as cases of the coronavirus spike in Houston, Texas, July 8, 2020. (Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters)

On the menu today: a long look at a call for the restoration of the sweeping lockdowns of the spring, including the call for vastly expanded police powers; the continued unwillingness to restrict protests; the cost in lost lives from enacting a sweeping lockdown; and the long-gone presumption of good faith in these discussions.

Here It Comes: the Call for the Restoration of the Spring’s Sweeping Lockdowns

John Barry is a smart guy and not crazy, so when he writes in the New York Times, “the pandemic could get much, much worse,” we should sit up and take notice. (Then again, a man who spent years of his life researching the 1918 influenza pandemic might be habitually inclined to contemplate the worst-case scenario, as the great influenza was about as bad as it gets. To clarify, the pandemic itself was as bad as it gets; Barry’s The Great Influenza is about as good as it gets.)

But I found Barry’s op-ed a little frustrating. Early on, he approvingly points to “Australia issu[ing] fines totaling $18,000 because too many people attended a birthday party in someone’s home.”

Some human beings are going to make dumb decisions in a pandemic. I want those dumb decisions discouraged, rebuked, and reprimanded, but not necessarily criminalized. You may have noticed we’ve been having these big protests and national arguments about systemic flaws within our criminal-justice system and inequality in the eyes of the law. Is giving the cops the authority to write a $1,150 ticket for attending a birthday party going to make the situation better or worse? Considering our experience with asset forfeiture laws, are we sure we want to give the police the power to impose enormous fines for activities that are mundane and commonplace in non-pandemic circumstances?

I don’t know if Barry intended to suggest the “New York rocks, Florida stinks” theme that so many other media voices have embraced these days, but he writes, “while New York City just recorded its first day in months without a Covid-19 death, the pandemic is growing across 39 states. In Miami-Dade County in Florida, six hospitals have reached capacity.” (That day in New York City with no deaths was Saturday, July 11. But the New York Times website lists eleven deaths that day, five for July 12, and 40 for July 13.) New York City has more than 224,000 cases and endured nearly 23,000 deaths. The virus has ravaged the five boroughs and picked it clean of the lowest-hanging fruit; it cannot reasonably be painted as a coronavirus success story.

Barry writes that “social distancing, masks, hand washing, and self-quarantine remain crucial.” Most of us are doing that; it is also true that not enough of us are doing that. He adds, “too little emphasis has been placed on ventilation, which also matters.” If we want people to be in areas with more air circulation, it makes little sense for local and state governments to close beaches and parks. One idea recommended in Barry’s op-ed that has been rarely or barely implemented is installing ultraviolet lights in public areas.

Generally, the op-ed is a call for the restoration of the sweeping lockdowns we experienced in the spring. Barry writes, “only decisive action will work in places experiencing explosive growth — at the very least, limits even on private gatherings and selective shutdowns that must include not just such obvious places as bars but churchesalso a well-documented source of large-scale spread. Depending on local circumstances, that may prove insufficient; a comprehensive April-like shutdown may be required.”

Barry does not mention protests at all. Protests were not the main factor in the recent growth in cases, but they were a factor; many protesters wore masks, but not all of them. Look to comments from Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Gimenez, and some outbreaks among protesters in South Carolina and police in Austin, Memphis, and Houston. You will probably hear people responding to this by insisting that contact tracing has not proven any connection between the protests and an increase in cases. But contact tracers in New York City and San Francisco enacted policies to specifically not ask those testing positive if they had attended a protest. We do not know the full connection between the protests and the spread of the virus, because some people in authority did not want to know.

That said, the spread from protests is small compared to crowds gathering at bars, restaurants, and parties — the sort of circumstances where people are likely to get closer than six feet apart and speak to each other for long stretches, indoors, without masks. But the sight of massive crowds of people gathering in public squares for the protests — and the near-total absence of any rebuke from any public-health authority — likely convinced many people who didn’t attend the protests that it was safe to go back to their normal habits.

Even now, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has enacted a policy where large gatherings are banned except for Black Lives Matter protests, a nonsensical position that implies the virus is less contagious if people gather in the name of a particular cause:

Blitzer: What about protests? If people want to march down Fifth Avenue, are they going to be allowed to do so?

Mayor: Look, Wolf, this is always an area of real sensitivity. If you’re just talking about health, we would always say, hey, folks, you know, stay home if you can. But we understand that this moment in history people are talking about the need for historic changes. I mean, today, in New York City, you know, recognizing the power and the meaning of the message Black Lives Matter, which we did in front of Trump Tower today — this is a historic moment of change. We have to respect that, but also say to people the kinds of gatherings we’re used to, the parades, the fairs, we just can’t have that while we’re focusing on health right now.

If elected officials specifically declare that churches must suspend religious services and simultaneously declare certain political protests will be permitted, churchgoers will conclude that the ban is not driven by concerns about public health but by ideological animosity. Barry wants an assumption of good faith in this discussion that politicians like Bill de Blasio have already set on fire.

Barry writes that the second wave of lockdowns “could be on a county-by-county basis, but half-measures will do little more than prevent hospitals from being overrun.” For starters, preventing hospitals from being overrun is a really important goal, and was the oft-cited objective behind “bend the curve” from the start.

Second, enacting additional restrictions on activity on a county-by-county basis absolutely makes sense. Fifteen counties in Montana have five cases or fewer. Nineteen counties in Texas have five cases or fewer. Three counties in California have five cases or fewer. Some parts of the country — mostly rural areas and small towns — have barely encountered the virus at all; shutting down all nonessential businesses in those places inflicts considerable economic pain for little to no benefit to public health.

Barry argues, “half-measures will leave transmission at a level vastly exceeding those of the many countries that have contained the virus. Half-measures will leave too many Americans not living with the virus but dying from it.”

And here is where we need a much more honest discussion in this country. As of this writing, the United States is knocking on the door of 140,000 deaths from the coronavirus. Yesterday, the country reported 935 new deaths. We will probably hit 200,000 sometime in the fall. From mid-April to mid-July, people could argue, “yes, daily new cases are going up, but daily new deaths are going down.” No one should underestimate how bad our situation is.

But the sweeping lockdowns that Barry apparently wants to see restored will have their own far-reaching harmful effects. Fatal drug overdoses, suicides, delayed cancer surgeries, those with warning signs of heart attacks or strokes staying away from hospitals until it’s too late — sweeping lockdowns bring their own threats and risks to public health. Elected officials have to complete a grim calculus: How many people will die without a strict lockdown in place, and how many people will die because a strict lockdown is in place?

Earlier this week I noted that, based simply upon case and death numbers, Hawaii’s David Ige is arguably the most successful governor in the country. But his mandatory quarantine rules have simultaneously destroyed the state’s tourism industry and his state has 26 percent unemployment.

This is where we see the long-term toxicity of comments like the ones from Bill Maher a while back, contending that a recession would be worth it if it led to President Trump’s defeat. It’s not just the acerbic Maher; left-of-center writers have made similar comments, and last year Representative John Delaney of Maryland — if you’ve forgotten, he was the bald presidential candidate who said a few sensible things that almost everyone ignored — observed, “it feels like some Democrats are cheering on a recession because they want to stick it to Trump.

Many Trump fans believe that Trump critics want to harm the economy as much as possible in order to ensure the president’s defeat in November. Polling in August 2019 found 71 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents believe that Democrats are rooting for economic hardship to reduce Trump’s chances of winning a second term. I don’t think that’s Barry’s motivation, but he walks into a national debate where the assumption of good faith is long gone. Not every Democrat is Bill Maher — but you also didn’t see a lot of Democrats jumping up and denouncing a multimillionaire Hollywood star for publicly yearning for widespread economic misery, either.

I don’t think you’ll see the restoration of sweeping lockdown rules, in part because the enforcement of those rules went so badly the first time. Americans witnessed dumb rules such as bans on surfing and drive-in church services and nutty arbitrary restrictions such as permitting drywall but not paint in Michigan. They witnessed ridiculous decisions such as the arrest of a dad playing catch with his daughter, police forcefully dragging a man off a bus after a dispute about wearing a mask, and police taking a mom away from a playground in handcuffs. And then once the protests started, the strict enforcement of quarantines suddenly disappeared. All of this came together to convince plenty of people that the lockdowns represented petty fascism and micromanaging governors on power trips.

While these rules were being enforced, ordinary Americans wondering how they’re going to pay the rent or mortgage were subjected to wealthy celebrities singing “imagine no possessions,” David Geffen telling everyone to “stay safe” from his yacht, Madonna assuring us from her bathtub in her mansion that what was great about the quarantine was that it was “the great equalizer,” and tales of wealthy and well-connected elites ignoring the quarantine restrictions. Millions of Americans concluded the lockdown represented draconian immiseration enacted by elites who were wildly oblivious to the realities of their lives, yet couldn’t stop patting themselves on the back for their empathy.

ADDENDUM: Michael Watson: “Whether schools open this fall will be a battle between teachers unions — who see an opportunity to employ a degree of political leverage that previously had only the stuff of their (fevered) dreams — and parents who need a return to work and toward normalcy.”


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