October 1, 2020

Communities didn't wait for lockdown orders from above

Mike Vogel | 5/21/2020

When states should have issued statewide lockdown orders and lifted them for reopening became a contentious issue in the pandemic. It turns out three quarters of the desired change in human activity to slow the virus happened without state lockdown mandates, says research by Florida Atlantic University economics professor William Luther.

Because the Centers for Disease Control says most Americans eventually will be exposed to the virus, the question isn’t stopping the disease but slowing it enough to keep hospitals in individual communities from being overwhelmed. Luther’s findings argue that cities and counties are best positioned to judge what needs to be done to slow COVID-19.

He studied national Google Mobility data and found that decisions by individuals, employers and local governments did more than statewide mandates to cut down shopping, recreation, presence in the workplace and use of pubic transit. Much of the mitigation of the disease spread -- and the slowdown in economic activity -- would have happened anyway without state orders. Florida and Gov. Ron DeSantis received a share of opprobrium nationally for not moving faster to lockdown the state. As it turns out, locals already were doing so.

State and federal officials move slower in general because they have to marshal widespread support, he says. “It’s very easy to say, ‘Well, the state was too slow to respond,’ but that’s a feature of democracy, not a bug,” Luther said.

Local government leaders can see consensus in their communities sooner and respond faster. They also know local conditions best -- beaches, for example, that attract families that keep to themselves and aren’t overrun with people and beaches that attract lots of strangers crowding together and interacting. “They can identify which locations and interactions are likely to encourage spread and where it is relatively safe to continue on more or less as usual,” he says. “In general, counties should be permitted to craft their own policies to deal with county-specific risks and preferences.”

 

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