Across America, state and local governments are implementing a variety of rules for businesses as they reopen and relax their mandatory closures that were intended to curb the spread of coronavirus. Unfortunately, this confusing patchwork of rules is unlikely to make much difference from a public health standpoint but will extend the economic pain of small businesses and individuals, many of whom have already lost their livelihoods. As the country reopens, rather than micromanage with rules, governments should simply provide timely and accurate public health information so individuals and businesses can incorporate this knowledge into their own decisions about how to run their lives and companies.
Government lockdowns have saved far fewer lives than most modelers imagine. They falsely assume that, in the absence of mandatory shelter-in-place orders, people would have gone about their normal business, but Americans were already adapting their behavior long before the issuance of any government directives. Smartphone data shows a dramatic decline in individuals’ mobility before the first coronavirus-related shelter-in-place orders were issued. And the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit district reported a 35 percent drop in ridership four days before county officials announced the nation’s first COVID-19 stay-at-home order on March 16.
This shouldn’t surprise us. It’s in everyone’s self-interest to avoid high-risk situations. Virtually all of us have “circles of empathy” that include friends and relatives and we naturally want to do what we can to protect those that are important to us. Overwhelmingly, Americans make rational and community-minded choices. What we need from the government is public health data to help inform those choices.
There was much we didn’t understand at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, but policymakers have failed to adapt as new information becomes available. For instance, even after the Centers for Disease Control determined the virus was not easily spread from contaminated surfaces, many states continued to cordon off playground equipment so children could not use it. Likewise, despite evidence that children are unlikely to spread coronavirus, schools remain closed throughout the country. Children have lost months of schooling due to the coronavirus response, which will inflict economic costs lasting a generation.
Likewise, the shutdowns have unreasonably penalized younger workers despite data showing they can safely resume living their lives. Statistics from around the world show low infection fatality rates for people under 50, especially those with no underlying health conditions. Many younger people have limited savings and thus need to maintain their income to avoid financial emergencies. Rather than impose random restrictions on them, governments should tell the public that data show young people can safely and responsibly return to work and recreational activities.
The government should also trust health care professionals to properly care and protect patients who need their services. Patients awaiting cancer surgeries and other necessary treatments have been forced to put those off and some with potentially life-threatening issues stopped going to the doctor. Millions of Americans have foregone regular health care needs. All of these services can be reopened immediately, with health care workers taking the necessary precautions to protect themselves and patients.
Politicians and bureaucrats made these illogical decisions about who could work and which services and businesses were “essential” without clearly understanding their widespread impacts or how most businesses and industries are interconnected through various supply chain and customer relationships.
The government lockdowns led to historic unemployment and devastated a still untold number of households and businesses. The $3 trillion stimulus bill — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, CARES Act — combined with direct purchases of securities by the Federal Reserve, will ultimately cost future U.S. taxpayers more than $6 trillion. Yet, despite that price tag, it picked winners and losers, leaving many small businesses out in the cold. The shutdowns also decimated state and local government tax revenues and budgets for the foreseeable future.
The full effect of the shutdowns has been disastrous. And now public health officials are squandering their credibility by reversing directives on the need for social distancing and limiting public mass gatherings in order to express support for the Black Lives Matter protests against police violence. There’s an undeniable and immediate need to significantly reform policing and the criminal justice system, but the next time a real health emergency arrives, many Americans will remember this hypocrisy and dismiss health experts’ warnings out of hand.
Americans’ ability to accurately incorporate information into their private decisions is without parallel. The re-opening efforts underway should be rapid and give responsibility to private actors to implement voluntary new precautions against future contagion. The mass coordination of individuals’ decisions through the marketplace has built the most prosperous society in world history. Now is not the time to abandon that tradition in favor of central planning by a political class that is manifestly not up to the task.
A version of this column first appeared at the Daily Caller.