Bret Stephens has a tough job. I don’t mean like 19th-century coal miner tough, but as one of the “conservative” opinion contributors at The New York Times, he winds up pleasing none of the people a lot of the time.
This is because much of the Grey Lady’s leftist readership doesn’t think the Times should run conservative views at all and much of the American right finds the anti-Trump “can’t we go back to Mitt Romney” style of conservatism to be tiresome and milquetoast. On Saturday, it was former who targeted their ire at Stephens.
In a column titled “America Shouldn’t Have to Play by New York Rules,” Stephens argued that given how much more serious the coronavirus outbreak has been in New York, the rest of the country should not be on the same level of lockdown. It caught my interest because three weeks ago at The Federalist I ran a column titled “We Can’t Destroy The Country for the Sake of New York City,” in which I argued the exact same thing. So I was sympathetic but unsurprised by the backlash he faced.
The response to Stephen’s article was different, by and large in one respect, compared to the reaction to mine. Three weeks ago. my critics assured me that within days wide swaths of the country would mirror New York’s situation. Stephens was spared that rather silly argument because obviously that did not come to pass.
According to antibody tests in Los Angeles and Miami, somewhere around 4-6 percent of people in those big cities carried the virus. In New York City, that number was 20 percent. All three cities went on lockdown at about the same time. It is now obvious that unique elements of population density and public transit make Gotham vastly more vulnerable to the virus.
Having reluctantly given up the position that everywhere will be like New York City, Stephen’s critics found two central new arguments to make. The first is that New York lockdown rules are not being “forced” on the rest of the country. The second is that the American people favor continued social distancing by large numbers. Let’s take each in their turn.
The claim that New York is not responsible for the severe lockdowns we see across the country is the kind of revisionist history that we will all be drowned in over the coming weeks. Through late March and early April, Drs. Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci made clear time and again that their recommendations were based mostly on data from New York, where the most cases and testing existed.
Throughout this time, there was a hue and cry from most on the left that we needed a national lockdown. Governors who resisted, like Ron DeSantis in Florida, were pilloried. Nobody on the left was insisting that each state should take its own approach; in fact, the exact opposite was true. A response to coronavirus crafted from and shaped by the perilous outlying situation in New York City was grafted on most of the country.
As to the question of public support for the lockdown, much was made of Stephens describing those who oppose it as “so much of America.” Critics cited polls showing that as little as 15 percent of Americans support ending restrictions. But a couple things on that. First of all, 15 percent of Americans is about 50 million citizens, who are under stay at home orders of unprecedented length. We have also seen governors on both sides of the aisle begin loosening restrictions in the face of economic disaster.
The bottom line is that Stephens is very sensibly pointing out something that has been obvious for weeks. The outbreak in New York is unlike any outbreak anywhere else in the country, and it is absurd to think that the rest of the country must keep to New York’s reopening schedule.
Perhaps the silliest take in response to this blatant fact is that those who accept it somehow wish harm on New York City. This makes absolutely no sense. In fact, by distancing New York’s response from the rest of the nation’s, one gives the city even greater capacity to shut down compared to other areas. It is just as true that New York shouldn’t be playing by Indiana’s rules as it is that Indiana should not be playing by New York’s.
Too many in the media and the government have resisted addressing good news, such as we see in lower-infected areas, for fear of instilling a false confidence in the American people that leads to them letting their guard down. It can’t work that way. We need to hear all of the news, good and bad, to make sensible decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Three weeks ago, this was a fringe position. Now it appears in the New York Times and is being instituted across the country. It was true then that a one size fits all approach made no sense, and it is still true today.