In the United States, one size does not fit all, even during a pandemic. Yet some of Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force members have endorsed a national lockdown. While there are real concerns about rising cases and hospitalizations, a national lockdown is a terrible idea, no matter how much money the government borrows to pay for it.
In fairness, “lockdown” is a slippery term. Even Sweden, which has been much-praised by those opposing lockdowns, has had some restrictions in place (including limits on the size of public gatherings), which it recently intensified. But in the American context, lockdown means shuttering businesses deemed to be non-essential, closing all schools to in-person education, and similar extreme measures.
Locking us down nationwide would be a disaster. It would be an enormous blow to the economy while also being inefficient at slowing the spread of the virus. Small businesses, in particular, have been devastated by the pandemic, and though the economy has come roaring back, it cannot be turned on and off at a whim or idled indefinitely.
A national lockdown would destroy many more businesses and lives, and — notably — it would do so with less justification than in the early days of the outbreak. We now know much more about the relative danger of the disease and how to treat it. The mortality rate has dropped significantly and multiple vaccines are close to ready. Many businesses and their customers have adjusted to life during the coronavirus, as have many churches and schools.
Furthermore, there is no unified buy-in for another national lockdown eight months after the first lockdowns nationwide began. Despite the slogans promoting solidarity, we are not all in this together. Some people can comfortably work from home while enjoying the laptop and delivery lifestyle, others cannot. And much of the country will not accept a new lockdown after a summer and fall during which massive protests were praised by the same people now advocating lockdowns. There is no way to restore the credibility that has been lost through these double standards.
A society in which often-violent street protests are given precedence over weddings and funerals is intolerable, and many people will refuse to accept subordination in that hierarchy. Why should our most important celebrations and ceremonies be restricted to a handful of people while devotees of fashionable political causes can rally in vast swarms? Why should our livelihoods be shut down and lives upended while a cavalcade of politicians are caught breaking the rules they imposed on the rest of us? Why should playgrounds be closed by day while mobs are given free rein by night?
Businesses may be forced to comply with lockdown orders—it is easier to enforce rules against those with regular hours and fixed locations—but we should expect more resistance than there was earlier in the year. Lockdowns were supposed to be a temporary measure to slow the initial wave of the plague, not an indefinite on-off cycle.
We can be careful without closing everything down. Indeed, a complete closure of ordinary businesses and entertainment venues may make things worse by encouraging more recklessness elsewhere. If there is nothing else to do, many people will ignore the rules in their personal lives, just as protestors and partiers have been doing for months.
Too frequently left out of the debates over a national lockdown is that such an action would also violate the U.S. Constitution, which does not grant the federal government power to implement such a policy, and would arguably run afoul of the 10th Amendment. Among the reasons for this limitation is that ours is a diverse nation; the American tradition of state and local government are the practical recognition of our national diversity.
Life in rural Oregon is very different from life in New York City, and wise and just governments will take this into account. An intelligent pandemic strategy will therefore be responsive to local conditions, as different regions and localities will have very different case numbers and risk factors.
Thus, a national lockdown would also be inefficient. Even if local lockdowns are necessary and effective, a national lockdown would involve the government spending enormous sums of money to shut down relatively safe areas. It would close down areas where the virus is under control, rather than focusing mitigation efforts on the specific locales where they are most needed.
This pandemic has been a trial for all of us. We want it to be over, and for life to return to normal. With news of successful vaccines on the near horizon, there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. But we are not there yet, and there is no shortcut to safety.
This includes the drastic step of a national lockdown, which would be a cure worse than the disease. The measures that are taken to control the spread of the virus must be tailored to local circumstances; if not, they are likely to do more harm than good. No to national lockdowns.