It should come as no surprise that California has had the most onerous, restrictive, and at times, ridiculous responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in the states. But a viral tweet concerning San Franciscans’ dating life from Saturday night highlights just how absurd and unrealistic these can be.
As we head into the winter months, COVID-19 cases are once again surging. Our healthcare system is again beginning to strain under the stress and ICUs are reaching capacity. In response, state governments have been re-imposing restrictions in an attempt to dampen the spread of the virus.
But all restrictions are not created equal. Instead of instituting draconian rules merely that demonstrate to voters just how seriously policymakers take the threat, our responses should be tailored to the problems that we face. We have learned a lot about COVID-19 in the past 9 months, we should put this hard-earned experience to work.
California is doing just the opposite. I do not fault any policymaker for going too far in the spring; we were all panicking in March, myself included, but now, after months of time and study, any restriction should meet several criteria. It must be targeted on a common vector of infection, activities where people actually face a serious risk of infection. Any restriction must be realistic, meaning that people are both willing and able to adhere to them. Finally, it should reflect the realistic risks of mortality and death facing individuals.
Which is why the tweets from San Francisco district supervisor Matt Haney struck me. After announcing that the new health order allowed people to interact outdoors with one other person, he said “In person dating is no longer banned in San Francisco. But you can only date outdoors and no double dates.” Parodying the stodgiest social conservative, he added, “you can only kiss if you move in together.”
After the tweets began to go viral, he called them both factual and sarcastic. According to San Francisco public health orders, in-person dating was not allowed prior to the recent changes.
Messaging is important to convince people to follow public health orders. Being sarcastic about these regulations is counterproductive at best and will likely reduce compliance among frustrated, tired, lonely people. Everyone is struggling this year, but for single people living alone, adding this insult to injury may be too much. This ignores whether the government should be able to dictate your love life in time of emergency.
Having government officials announce dating bans is bad policy. People will not submit to laws that they feel are arbitrary for long, eventually they start ignoring them. This is especially true for unenforceable laws, which people become used to flouting. When people ignore laws it begins to erode people’s respect for laws in general. Ultimately, you end up with more people willing to disregard laws that they don’t like, which makes designing an appropriate response even more difficult for policymakers. An important aspect of well-designed restrictions is that they result in people actually follow them.
While it is difficult to argue that we should not reduce our number of contacts outside the household during this pandemic, it is just as difficult to believe that the optimal number of outside contacts is zero. Assuming that the optimal number is zero only considers the benefits of reducing the spread of COVID-19. It entirely ignores the extreme cost of long periods of isolation for people.
Human contact is essential for mental health. In general, the pandemic has caused a flood of mental health issues. Forcing people to withstand it alone only exacerbates people’s deteriorating mental health.
All actions have tradeoffs. Slowing the spread of this virus, undoubtedly a good thing, has real tradeoffs we need to consider when deciding on the appropriate policy response. Ignoring them does not make them disappear.
In many cases, I prefer guidelines to mandates, but whichever policymakers choose to implement, they must consider the associated costs. Rather than ban all contact outside of the home for at least a year, they should design measures to limit that contact. While some risk of spread will still exist, it will be proportionately far easier for people to maintain until a vaccine allows us to return to normalcy.
Or instead of banning outside contact of any kind, limit it to places where people can do so safely. The announced change allowing people to meet outdoors is a step in the right direction. It allows people to interact, but do so in a safe environment. But given how safe we know outdoor activity is, why impose such a strict, two household limit? Why not allow people to dine outside? We should be trying to find any safe activity to encourage or at least allow.
This pandemic has been difficult for everyone. We have changed our lives in many costly ways and suffered greatly. Policymakers that continue to push costly, poorly designed rules increase this suffering and make people less likely to follow restrictions. Banning dating may give single people a good excuse for family members at Christmas, but it’s a costly overreach by policymakers.
Conor Norris is a research analyst at the Knee Center for the Study of Occupational Regulation at Saint Francis University. He graduated from George Mason University with an MA in economics.