Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards has often made policy ignoring laws concerning human behavior, such as in the world of economics supply and demand. But when it comes to his response to the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, he faithfully follows the law of the instrument, which causes problems.
He gave Louisiana another demonstration of that this weekend, when he abruptly retrenched somewhat on reopening the economy and impinged on personal liberty. He proclaimed that bars could provide only take-out service, with the exception of worship a limitation of 50 on crowds in areas without adequate spacing, and mandating face coverings in public places except for worship and with age, health, and consumption exceptions, to last from Jul. 13 to at least Jul. 24.
The rationale he gave focused on a recent increase in the number of cases and hospitalizations with the former disproportionately among younger people and the latter creeping towards full capacity. Supposedly, too many young people were going out and transmitting the virus then passing it along to their elders.
Since the pandemic started, Louisiana has cemented its status as an outlier epidemiologically. It raced to one of the highest per capita infection and mortality rate states, in the company of much more urbanized areas, fell relatively slightly, but has risen again to reclaim top (or bottom, depending on how you define it) three ranking. In fact, by one popular measure, since the end of June it has had the worst outbreak. (Edwards gave a break to three parishes with the order because of their relatively lower total incidence, but they were part of the epidemic trend parishes by this measure; only two other parishes in Louisiana this measure didn’t classify in its worst category of epidemic trend.)
States (or in the case of California, half) farthest south in the U.S. all have posted the most significant increases in virus incidence since the beginning of summer, and for good reason: with the warmer weather, people get out more, yet often congregating in the cooler indoors (or at night on the street or in parking lots). Plus, school is out and some tourists still come around.
For most, it’s a kind of a catch-up: they lagged other, more urbanized states, so the wave hitting them now is similar, if not quite as severe, as what those other states saw two to three months ago. Those other early-adopting states have seen indicators level off. Yet discouragingly for Louisiana, almost uniquely it has experienced an N-shaped pattern, with its present case numbers approaching those at the height three months back, with only Kansas, Ohio, and Washington displaying something similar if less extreme.
However, hospitalizations are another matter. Here, Louisiana has gotten to only two-thirds of that worst level, in large part due to the disproportionate case growth of the young (now five times the per capita number at the height). Bluntly, few of the young suffer much at the hands of the virus. Consider that as of this weekend two-sevenths of all cases came among those 29 and younger, but only 0.42 percent of all deaths.
Further, the hospitalization rates show the same pattern as seen in case acquisition nationwide. With one exception, the regions hit harder the earliest have shown only small recent increases in hospitalizations per day, while those three that started slow have seen the larger upticks to record highs mainly behind the state rate going up. (The one exception, Northwest, also now has a higher rate than ever.) Keep in mind as well that even as critical care beds in hospitals and all beds available by region have crept up, sufficient slack still exists in both at this time, with no region having less than 25 percent slack in the former and 30 percent in the latter (consider also that not all these beds obviously are occupied by virus patients.)
Two policy-making bullet points stand out here. First, the disproportionate acquisition among the younger bodes well in that this puts the state much further along the road to herd immunity, but also raises the risk to the vulnerable for the moment. The question thus posed is how to respond to not discourage immunity acquisition, yet protect the vulnerable. Second, as has typified the pandemic in Louisiana, different regions show very different patterns. The question thus posed is the degree of nuance the response should have.
Since it all began, Edwards has displayed a day late/dollar short mentality that results in overreaction. The law of the instrument postulates that decision-makers rely overly on familiar tools born of their particular worldview. Specific to Edwards, that means seeking a big government solution indiscriminately applied that in past inflection points meant disregarding data and science in favor of politics.
He hardly deviated in this instance. Allowing three parishes to opt out has been the first instance ever of him taking a local/regional approach in his mandates, unlike many other governors who incorporated the criteria. And much of the rest of the decision constituted overreach.
The point is not to keep the virus spreading among the healthy, but to keep it to getting to vulnerable people. In situations where the vulnerable population must interact with the healthy potential carriers, masking is appropriate, such as a requirement that all businesses have all employees interacting with the population masked (and smart business owners who don’t wish to have to shut down operations because an infection races through the establishment and takes out too many employees may want to have every employee wear one).
But otherwise, requiring masks of anyone in public and that businesses enforce their wearing among customers violates human dignity. There are next to no situations where somebody must go into an essential place of business and find themselves among unmasked individuals within six feet distance for at least 15 minutes; businesses under existing proclamations are to ensure that in order to operate (either by marking or capacity limits). In fact, currently many high-volume businesses cater to the needs of vulnerable people by establishing special service hours for them. And, if you are a vulnerable person, if nothing else, wear your own face covering and/or don’t patronize nonessential places.
And bars face some discrimination in the current context. Existing proclaimed rules would have mitigated spread there while maintaining a good rate of immunity buildup. Probably some places didn’t follow those rules, but, despite repeated warnings of enforcement by Edwards, that never happened at the state level. There is a fundamental unfairness to this ban: should a business suffer just because its clientele is healthier and more raucous than others?
Of course, transmission could occur from the healthy to vulnerable at home: the grandkids go out and have a merry time boozing it up then breathe all over grandma and grandad at home. But that’s a matter of personal responsibility and beyond the appropriate scope of government, and it’s also something you can’t fix with public policy. People who are or around vulnerable folks, as a moral issue, should act much more cautiously without government infringing on everybody else’s personal freedom. Put another way, if you’re elderly and living at home with thoughtless young people putting themselves in risky environments without proper precautions and actions, stay away from the stupid little twerps and tell them to grow up and until that changes you won’t be hanging with them. That’s your and their job, not government’s.
The only sensible part of Edwards order was the crowd limitation, and perhaps even that should have been adjusted by region. As for the rest, we cannot forget that government can’t indemnify people against all risk nor undertake the illegitimate and too severe restrictions of personal autonomy that would entail. First and foremost it’s people, not government, who must look out for themselves and the ones they (in some cases as indicated by their behavior only claim to) love, and not offload costs from them potentially not doing so onto others. Edwards still just doesn’t seem to understand that.