“Healthy people have rights too,” complained my 89-year old mother, who’s miffed because we’ve refused to take her to her favorite grocery store. Mom has joined the tens of thousands of people across America who believe that enough is enough. From California to Pennsylvania, from Michigan to Texas, people have begun to push back on the stay at home orders meant to stop the spread of the coronavirus. These protests are occurring as President Trump and state governors are debating when to loosen the restrictions on social distancing. Already, as many as a dozen states have begun to ease or lift restrictions.
While the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights protect peoples’ right to assemble, government also has a legitimate interest in protecting the public from a highly contagious disease. Who’s right?
“We can talk in a law school sense of what the competing claims are here,” said Andrew McCarthy, senior fellow of the National Review Institute and former Assistant U.S. Attorney, in an interview with Neil Cavuto. “There are court tests that apply . . . and we could probably for hours parse over them. The more important thing is the political legitimacy of the restrictions . . . If they [public officials] don’t have public buy-in, if this isn’t deemed to be legitimate because it is rationally related to keeping people safe, people are not going to tolerate it, regardless of what the law is saying.”
Take Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who signed one of the most restrictive orders in the nation. The order contained several perplexing provisions that included barring in-state travel to vacation homes, store closures in areas “dedicated to carpeting, flooring, furniture, garden centers, plant nurseries, or paint.” Already exasperated over these provisions, Michiganders became further enraged when Whitmer hired a voter-contact software firm with close ties to the Democratic party to run the state’s contact tracing program. The contract was later cancelled.
San Francisco, where officials used the pandemic to empty as many jails as they could possibly get away with, issued its very first citation to an 86-year old man who was protesting in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic. The city’s former mayor, now California Governor Gavin Newsom, sees the “potential” to use the coronavirus crisis to push for a “new progressive era.”
“If people start to think that you are not really trying to keep them safe,” said McCarthy, “you’re trying to advance an ideological agenda, that’s the kind of thing that makes people go out on the street and protest because they don’t think that’s legitimate.”
Other factors are also adding to the tension and skepticism – including statistical models. The early models suggested that deaths from COVID-19 could be as high as one to two million in the U.S. alone. But subsequent models downgraded the number to 100,000 to 200,000. Now the latest models forecast even fewer deaths.
The irony is that the tougher and longer the restrictions, the lower the infections, lulling many people into a false sense of confidence. I’m no epidemiologist, but I suspect that the reason San Francisco has weathered the pandemic relatively well, despite its dense population, is that the city and the surrounding areas were among the first to enact stay at home orders. Moreover, the flexible workplace culture — especially at tech companies – made the transition to work from home seamless. In fact, many businesses had already encouraged employees to work from home even before the stay at home order was official.
But the stay-at-homers able to keep their jobs are the lucky ones. As of this writing, nearly 26 million people are unemployed in the U.S. Striking the right balance between opening the economy and keeping people safe is, as President Trump acknowledged, the toughest decision of his presidency. Politicians who insist on integrating an ideological agenda affirm the cynicism of the public and inadvertently risk public safety.
Meantime, ideological agenda or not, we will continue to have Mom’s groceries delivered, perhaps forever.
Rowena Itchon is senior vice president of the Pacific Research Institute.