A free society can respond to the coronavirus
By forcibly shutting down most businesses and restricting the ability of citizens to meet and gather, the Executive Order enacted by Governor Steve Sisolak represents the most extraordinary infringement on our civil liberties in modern history.
The move was obviously made with good cause and good intentions: a global pandemic caused by a highly contagious and poorly understood virus is among the narrow exceptions that would justify such aggressive policing powers.
Moreover, the initial rationale put forth for the shutdown — preventing the mass deaths that would result from an overwhelmed medical system — is precisely the type of catastrophe that would warrant such a massive expansion of state power.
Indeed, a prominent forecasting model initially predicted mass shortages of ICUs, ventilators, and hospital beds in Nevada, even if full social distancing measures were implemented and complied with.
Given such dire predictions, Governor Sisolak’s initial actions were understandable.
Thankfully, reality has not been as bad as those models assumed. Nevada’s hospital system remains well below capacity and able to serve all those in need of medical treatment. Projected deaths have fallen precipitously in response and are now at about a third of what was expected just a month ago.
Having achieved the stated purpose of the shutdown, it was thus surprising to see Governor Sisolak justify its continued expansion by using an entirely new metric: a declining number of new cases detected going forward.
This highlights the danger with trading liberty for safety, even in times of genuine emergency: the state will always seek to apply these newly conferred powers to a much broader range of situations than what was first authorized. This new metric — declining case numbers — does not come even close to justifying the extraordinary act of a statewide shutdown.
New, better data makes clear that the virus is much more widespread than first assumed, and that the vast majority of those infected have no symptoms whatsoever. Continuing the economic pain from the shutdown as health officials more widely test and add these mild or asymptomatic cases to the official count of confirmed cases makes little sense.
Compared to what we were first told, the larger than expected number of asymptomatic cases is actually a good thing. It means that the coronavirus is far less deadly than originally thought, and thus a rising number of newly confirmed cases would not lead to the hospital shortages initially feared.
The reopening guidelines released by the Center for Disease Control reflects this reality and encourages states to take a more targeted approach by focusing on protecting the vulnerable segment of the population.
The CDC guidelines also allow for a more localized, county-by-county approach. Rural Nevada is much different than Clark County; the guidelines should reflect that reality.
Most important, however, is that the guidelines replace the mandates. Freedom need not be sacrificed to respond to this crisis. As many have already noted, the process of restoring Nevada’s economy will be slow and painful. The lifting of mandates will not result in an immediate influx of tourism or even locals returning to their favorite restaurants.
People want to be safe, and robust social distancing measures will remain in place, even without a mandate. The recent changes implemented by grocery stores are a great example of the type of market-based measures we can expect to see from businesses going forward.
In other words, little is likely to change in our daily lives, at least for the foreseeable future, by adopting county-based recommendations instead of a statewide shutdown.
All of history demonstrates that the rights of the people are never lost in one fell swoop. Instead, the process is always a slow erosion, whereby initial emergencies justify previously unthinkable restrictions, which rapidly become normalized and expanded upon by later administrations.
If you would be uncomfortable with your least-favorite politician wielding an expanded form of these powers in a much broader range of situations, you should be concerned about the precedent continuing the shutdown will set.