JOFFE: State And Local Governments Need To Remove All COVID-19 Restrictions

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Marc Joffe Contributor
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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that coronavirus restrictions should be lifted immediately. You can find a counterpoint here, where Dr. Anthony Harris argues that we should lift restrictions gradually.

After 14 months of ever-evolving COVID-19-related government restrictions, it is time for a full return to our pre-pandemic legal norms.

With widely available COVID-19 vaccines, improved treatments and manageable hospitalization rates, there is no longer anything approaching compelling public health justifications for state and local officials to prevent Americans from socializing, engaging in commerce, and most importantly, properly educating our children.

While the politicization of the virus may have been somewhat predictable during the hard-fought 2020 election cycle, it has left an ideological gulf in our perception of COVID-19 risks and our thoughts about how to deal with them. On the left, many have exaggerated ideas of how likely the coronavirus is to result in hospitalization and have adopted an ideology of “safetyism” under which the government is expected to drive down infection risks to zero, irrespective of other societal harms the restrictions may cause. On the right, some have responded with skepticism, vaccine hesitancy and a penchant for risk-taking epitomized, in some ways, by the Trump administration holding a large party after Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation, which turned into a super-spreader event.

In the early days of the pandemic, some restrictions and precautions may have been reasonable. This author, and some others, opposed shelter-in-place edicts back then, not because we weren’t willing to remain at home for a few weeks, but, because we feared that many government restrictions would last much longer and that some could become a permanent part of American life.

In some parts of the country, these fears are being realized. For example, two Massachusetts communities have extended their outdoor mask mandates, in contravention of state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance. The District of Columbia’s local government has recently vacillated over its outdoor mask mandate despite minimal evidence of outdoor spread amongst the unvaccinated.

Fortunately, deep blue California is now moving in the right direction, with Gov. Gavin Newsom announcing the state’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” that has four color-coded tiers showing which activities are allowed and which businesses can be open, will end on June 15.

When Gov. Newsom announced the blueprint last August, he said it didn’t even include a “green tier” signifying a complete re-opening because, “We don’t believe that there is a green light, which says go back to the way things were or back to the pre-pandemic mindset.”

Now, a variety of factors — California has the lowest COVID-19 case rate in the nation, hospitalizations are at their lowest levels since the beginning of the pandemic and Gov. Newsom is facing a recall election this November — have the state headed for a full re-opening.

By contrast, Florida stopped imposing most of its government-mandated COVID restrictions last September. Local governments in the state had some discretion to impose occupancy limits, but many did not do so. Florida’s COVID-19 deaths per million residents are only marginally higher than California’s, with part of the difference likely attributable to that state’s older population. Given these results, as well as high death rates in such other restrictive jurisdictions as New York and New Jersey where the initial wave was most deadly, there is some reason to doubt the efficacy of the long-term lockdowns.

The severity of COVID-19 public health restrictions is just one of many variables that determine the case, hospitalization, and death rates in any given location. Consequently, we may never know just how effective lockdowns were in protecting parts of the population, but the evidence we have suggests very modest benefits at best. And these benefits were achieved at massive costs, including job losses, kids not attending school, business closures and negative mental health impacts.

In today’s environment of relatively low and declining COVID hospitalization rates, the risk of hospitals overflowing in the wake of a full reopening is remote. All hospital workers have had access to vaccines for months, most adults can now receive vaccines with little or no waiting, and the Pfizer vaccine is set to be approved for use by those 12 and over. Since the vaccine provides full protection from a severe case of COVID-19 for almost everyone, the risk of endangering others during normal activities is now limited.

It’s time to end all of the COVID-19 restrictions.

Those of us who have long opposed lockdowns should embrace the vaccines and encourage everyone we know to receive them. If an insufficient proportion of Americans do not get vaccinated or become immune by recovering from an infection, we will fail to reach herd immunity.  As a result, we could continue to see large numbers of new daily cases and may even see serious spikes in some parts of the country. Regrettably, the past year shows us that overly cautious government officials could react to rising cases or hospitalizations by trying to reinstitute lockdowns and activity restrictions. To end the threat of unwarranted COVID-19 lockdowns in today’s “safetyist” environment, we should be taking every non-coercive opportunity to drive down COVID morbidity and mortality.

Marc Joffe is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation.