Nearly one year into the World Health Organization’s declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic, Texas and Mississippi have announced that they will “reopen” completely and remove any state restrictions on businesses or mask-wearing requirements.
Some public health officials responded by cautioning against reopening too soon: There are new, highly contagious COVID variants in circulation, and relaxed social interactions might aid transmission enough to create a new surge of cases.
Indeed, these are legitimate concerns. But policymaking depends (or should depend) only in part on concerns about COVID. Throughout the pandemic, there have been other risks to consider, which have often been overlooked or short-changed. All along, there has been general agreement that we should return to normal activities as soon as safely possible, and each day we delay this comes with a cost.
But there is one other danger to reopening too slowly: betraying the public trust. The American public—like constituencies across the world—hoped our government leaders would put public health-related restrictions in place only temporarily and only as justified by pandemic conditions.
Just as there are reasons for caution at this particular moment, there are also reasons for optimism. Pandemic conditions are changing. Policy should change to reflect this.
First, cases of COVID-19 have dropped precipitously in recent weeks, as have hospitalizations and deaths.
In the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Marty Makary estimates that 55 percent of Americans now have natural immunity, and 15 percent have immunity from the vaccine (the latter group growing fast). Dr. Makary projects that we will reach herd immunity by April.
As far as the new variants, there is some evidence that the vaccines provide some (60 percent) protection against them. This is imperfect protection, but it is something. And vaccine-makers are working feverishly on boosters to address these mutations even more effectively.
Furthermore, spring is coming. We will spend more time outdoors. We can physically distance ourselves more easily. And viruses generally don’t like warm weather; it appears this particular coronavirus is no exception. Mother Nature is on our side, at least for the next several months.
Importantly, states that are rolling back pandemic restrictions aren’t banning masks or forcing people to eat out at restaurants. They are simply moving the risk-assessment and decision-making process from the state government level to a more local level, either with city and county governments or with individuals and households themselves.
People in Texas and Mississippi are free to continue masking. They are also free to continue social distancing and enhanced personal hygiene. Many people will. The pandemic has heightened our awareness (and expectations) when it comes to public health and sanitation. This will outlast any change to public policy.
From early on, many Americans have worried—with justification—that public health officials were not acting in good faith, in accordance with science, and with a broad view of the impact of COVID countermeasures. If government leaders now fail to reverse COVID restrictions, they lend legitimacy to this concern.
And worse, they create, or increase, the incentive for Americans to break laws and ordinances aimed at public health. We should take care not to undermine respect for rule of law. The best way to do this is to have good laws.
Public health officials have had incredible control over our lives for the past year. Americans whose rights are protected by the Constitution do not expect to have government decree how many people we can invite to Thanksgiving or to our loved one’s funeral; we do not expect to be told that we cannot come within 6 feet of our neighbors.
We accepted these tremendous infringements on liberty based on the idea that it was an extraordinary moment in our history. But as history has shown us, power is an addictive drug, and it’s hard to give up. It’s especially hard to give up for those who are convinced that they are only acting for the sake of the public good.
But with great power comes great responsibility. Now, the responsible thing to do is to give Americans back control over their own lives in all 50 states.
There has never been a time in human history when we did not live with some risk, including the risk of disease. Now, one year in, that risk assessment no longer belongs in the hands of bureaucrats or government officials. It belongs in the sanitizer-soaked hands of law-abiding Americans who’ve made sacrifices to navigate this pandemic in good faith, as hard as it has been.