Why the Shutdown in America Must End

The shutdown exacts great costs on our economy and liberty but hasn’t proven effective

America’s coronavirus shutdown has lasted over 2 months, and in some parts of the country, there’s no letting up.

Under the order of governors and mayors, business owners who try to reopen are getting jailed, fined, or having their licenses revoked. People are being arrested for not showing proper distance on the street. In my home state of Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam continues to close non-essential businesses after nearby states reopened weeks ago. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio told beach-goers they will be “taken right out of the water.”

As new information on coronavirus emerges, these draconian orders seem increasingly absurd. The curve has flattened in many parts of the country, and the virus has not proven as deadly as modelers projected. This makes it harder to justify these shutdowns, especially given the costs.

Costs to the economy

100,000 people have now died because of the coronavirus. That number sounds huge until you compare it to other causes of death (cancer and heart disease kill a combined 1.2 million annually in the U.S.), and to the economic devastation caused by the shutdown. Thirty-six million new people have filed for unemployment, meaning that for every coronavirus death, 360 people are now unemployed.

As of May 13, over 100,000 businesses had permanently closed, and since then major brands like Hertz and J.Crew have joined in bankruptcy. The stimulus needed to keep our economy afloat added $2 trillion to the national debt, and this will increase if a second stimulus passes. America is expected to have a recession this year due to the shutdown, with GDP potentially falling by 7%, and some prominent economists predict a depression.

There’s really no sugar-coating the long-term economic ramifications: the longer we stay shut down, the more business closings, job losses, personal and government insolvency, shortages of basic goods, and economic stagnation we will see. The long-term consequences could be catastrophic. The sooner we reopen, the more likely it is we avoid those consequences.

So even if reopening increases the death count (and there’s no guarantee of that, as I explain below), that unfortunate fact should be weighed against the economic benefits produced. After all, we live in a world of tradeoffs.

Costs to personal liberty

America has also, during this shutdown, sacrificed personal liberties that we used to consider non-negotiable. The phenomenon can’t be put into numbers but many people have been left feeling uneasy about the control their state and local governments have over them. In these 2 months, mayors and governors have dictated the extent of our freedom of movement, ability to socialize, and right to operate businesses.

They have declared certain activities “essential” or “non-essential” in ways that are often arbitrary at best. Abortion clinics and state-run liquor stores are apparently essential during this crisis, while church services have in some states been banned, even though the Constitution specifically protects the free exercise of religion. Large retailers like Walmart and Costco are essential, while many competing, smaller businesses that sell the same goods and services must remain closed.

Other things deemed non-essential, seemingly on a whim, include going golfing, skateboarding, outdoor basketball, selling gardening seeds, and visiting the beach.

Attempts to push back on these rules via peaceful protests have been mocked by the press and in some cases caused arrest.

This has never been a country where public health goals are used to revoke personal rights, that’s why we don’t outlaw bacon and tobacco. It is also not a country where governors micromanage the personal decisions of millions of people “for their own good.” It is instead a country where individuals assess their own risks and act accordingly. That principle has abruptly and bizarrely been ignored these last 2 months.

Costs to health

Another minor issue with the shutdown is that it hasn’t worked. The bureaucrats who have imposed it, all citing “science”, of course, don’t even honor the scientific method of responding to new information.

What is certain about the virus, 4 months after the U.S.’s first case, is that it overwhelmingly threatens the old and is fairly harmless to the young. The average age of someone who dies of coronavirus is 75; 42% of deaths have been in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Meanwhile, the death rate for people under age 50 is 0.4% or less—and that’s not accounting for the millions of Americans who likely have it but are not yet tested.

It would seem sensible, then, to boost security around nursing homes and gradually lift restrictions for everyone else. Some governors have.

Florida’s Ron Desantis was criticized for his early reopening of the state economy but established extremely tight protocols about who could enter nursing homes. Now months have passed since Floridians were getting blasted for crowding the beaches, yet the state’s death rate is still only 105/1 million population. Georgia and Texas had similar approaches, and their deaths per 1 million are 53 and 174, respectively.

The hardest-hit states are Democratic ones that, inexplicably, took the opposite approach. Their governors shut down everyday life for millions of asymptomatic people but didn’t securitize retirement homes, allowing the entry of tenants, guests, and medical personnel who had already tested positive. New York actually mandated this of nursing homes, in what has become a growing scandal for Governor Cuomo. Along with New York, the states of New Jersey, Michigan, and Illinois have all had strict shutdown orders. Their deaths per 1 million population are much higher: 1,507, 1,256, 525 and 385, respectively. At the international level, Sweden took a herd immunity approach and has lower death rates than Spain, Italy, Belgium, and the UK. In Japan, a decentralized response has led to under 1,000 deaths in the entire country.

So, it seems that these centrally planned shutdowns never made sense given the costs, and may not even be effective. They certainly aren’t justifiable now given the new information on who dies from coronavirus and how to protect them. It’s time for the shutdowns to end.

Scott Beyer is a Catalyst Columnist Fellow on a 1.5-year research project through the Global South for Catalyst’s Market Urbanism Around the World series. He is the owner of Market Urbanism Report, a media company that advances free-market city policy. He is also an urban affairs journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine, HousingOnline.com, and Catalyst. Follow him on Twitter: @marketurbanist.
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