You can already feel it in the air. Lockdown—the euphemism describing the onerous restrictions on commerce and social gatherings that pertained throughout much of the country until the late spring—is making a comeback.
The Sun Belt states, which are now experiencing a wave of coronavirus-related infections it had escaped in the spring, led the way. Beginning mid-July, Florida closed all bars and nightclubs until the number of new cases in the state begins to “flatten.” Texas followed, shuttering bars and forcing restaurants to reduce indoor seating capacity from 75 to 50 percent. Arizona closed all bars, gyms, and movie theaters. California ordered the statewide closure of much indoor activity after relaxing those restrictions only weeks earlier.
These measures were driven by the alarming increase in these states’ respective caseloads, but it wasn’t long before states and cities that had sustained low infection rates began closing up shop again, too.
Connecticut and Rhode Island have both hit pause on their phased reopenings. Connecticut’s Gov. Ned Lamont announced the indefinite suspension of new indulgences for his state’s residents in early July. Even though his state’s positivity rate averaged at around 0.5 percent at the time of this announcement, the risk posed by rising infection rates around the country, he said, was sufficient to justify his caution. “We’re partying too much, social gatherings are too large,” Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said when she put a halt to her state’s reopening schedule on July 29, reducing the maximum allowed indoor gathering from 25 to 15 people. With a positivity rate of 1.8 percent in the state and 74 active hospitalizations, Rhode Island is seeing a worrying upward trend, but it isn’t even remotely comparable to the conditions that prevailed as recently as early June.
Not to be outdone, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on July 16 that all bars in the state will have to become restaurants if they want to operate. Only patrons who are ordering food—not just chicken wings, but a “substantive” meal—could also be served alcohol. New York City residents, who entered the final phase of reopening on July 20, are still barred from dining indoors or shopping in malls. Cuomo has expressed his displeasure over the city’s failure to compel police to enforce these edicts. In their absence, the state Liquor Authority is busily suspending the licenses of establishments that violate these draconian protocols.
Neighboring New Jersey, too, has erred on the side of maximum caution. Garden State restaurants had spent weeks preparing for the reopening of indoor dining scheduled for July 2 when, without warning on June 29, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that a return to normalcy would be postponed “indefinitely.” The inventory these businesses had acquired, and the staff pulled back from furlough—it would all have to be sacrificed. A month later, Murphy pared back the number of people allowed in all public and private indoor spaces—from 100 to just 25. “Until we begin to see the numbers of cases decrease – not just for one day, but over at least a 7-day trend,” the governor revealed, “these new restrictions on indoor gatherings will remain in place.”
Relative to the nightmarish ordeal these states endured in April and May, these new caseloads remain comparatively low and stable. Indeed, half the states in the Union are either pausing or reversing their efforts to reopen businesses and social venues, and their relative infection rates vary wildly. But there are almost no political consequences for public officials who lean into proactive restrictions on commercial, social, educational, or recreational activity. By contrast, public officials who pursued an aggressive reopening schedule and are perceived to have exacerbated the risks associated with this pandemic have seen their political positions deteriorate.
The incentive structure is clear. If you’re an elected official, the rationale for lifting lockdown restrictions (economic malaise, reduced tax revenue, and a dramatic uptick psychological maladies and “deaths of despair”) is outweighed not just by the prospect of a public health crisis but negative political consequences. The Sun Belt states that formed the vanguard of a new wave of lockdown restrictions in July have all witnessed a marked decrease in new cases per capita over the course of the last several weeks. But the vigor with which the Northeast’s governors pursued new restrictions independent of their respective infection rates suggests it is politically wiser to lean into lockdown irrespective of the circumstances.
While the public may be inclined to reward risk aversion in their elected officials, the consequences of such a policy cannot be postponed forever.
In New York City, small and independently owned businesses have all but exhausted the federal, state, and municipal assistance that has kept them afloat since March. More than 2,800 businesses have already closed for good, with as many as one-third of all small businesses in the city expected to follow suit.
“Excess mortality,” a bloodless way to describe the preventable deaths that are directly attributable to public policy, will continue to rise. “Across the United States, there were 95,235 reported deaths officially attributed to COVID-19 from March 1 to May 30, 2020,” a study published in July revealed. “In comparison, there were an estimated 122,300 (95 percent prediction interval, 116,800-127,000) excess deaths during the same period.”
Criminal violence will likely continue to rise. Across the country, homicides are up by 24 percent this year from last with shootings and gun violence in American cities increasing almost across the board. Police note that other types of violent crime, including rapes and robberies, are down—there are fewer people on the streets, and more people are home protecting their properties. The flip side is that the “eyes on the street”—individuals who police their own tight-knit communities—have disappeared, surrendering them to the criminal gangs. “With schools being closed and a lot of different businesses being closed, the people that normally would have been involved in positive structures in their lives aren’t there,” said a spokesman for the Fresno police department.
And the hypocrisies will mount. The carveouts and indulgences will continue to be granted to well-connected constituencies and protests movements that can mobilize demonstrations in the streets more readily than working families—double-dealing that will exacerbate social tensions at the height of a presidential election season.
To these societal maladies, advocates of a maximalist approach to this public health crisis insist that restrictions cannot be eased while a pandemic rages outside your window. But in many states, the relationship between the government’s reopening posture and the relative risk of infection is tenuous. Even before a second wave of COVID-19 infections is upon us, a second wave of lockdowns seems inevitable. And so, too, are the terrible second-order effects of such a blunt policy.