More than a dozen governors extended their economic shutdown orders recently into May and beyond. Those officials should have publicly addressed the following questions first:
- How many coronavirus deaths do you expect to avert by the shut-down extension?
- What will your state’s economy look like after another month of enforced stasis?
- How many workers will have lost their jobs?
- How many businesses will have closed for good?
- How many of your state’s young residents, seeking employment for the first time, will be unable to find it?
Instead, the announcements of the prolonged shutdown were representative of government decision-making during the coronavirus crisis: opaque, lacking in criteria for measuring success and failure, and bereft of any attempt to measure the benefits of mitigating one particular health problem against the costs—including other health problems.
New York’s tele-ubiquitous governor, Andrew Cuomo, for example, announced on April 15 that New York’s economy would now be shut down through May 15, instead of reopening on April 29, as previously scheduled. How did he arrive at May 15? It is a mystery. Other governors had just as inscrutably chosen May 3, May 4, May 8, May 20, or June 10 for their extensions.
Cuomo’s operating principle, he said, was to “do no harm.” Had harm to people’s livelihoods been factored into the extension decision? Viewers and voters were only left to guess. Cuomo’s press secretary has not responded to a query asking whether the governor had consulted with small business owners about their capacity to survive another month without customers.
Cuomo did reveal that his future decision-making would be guided by “data and science.” But all previous “scientific” estimates of the coronavirus toll—from the number of hospitalizations to the extent of equipment shortages and deaths—by Cuomo’s own admission, had proven wildly overinflated, sometimes by an order of magnitude of 10 times or more.
Instead of elucidating the criteria used in his extension decision, Cuomo offered a two-part “matrix” for deciding whether individual businesses will be allowed to reopen: First, in his words, “How important is a business to society, how essential is it?” Second, “How safely can the business operate?” It is not the role of a state bureaucrat to decide how essential an enterprise is. That is a judgment for consumers to make. To its employees, every business is essential. Perhaps the governor should let voters decide how essential the vast state bureaucracy is, how many staffers and diversity managers should be furloughed or fired during the current shut-down, and how many politicians should continue receiving their salaries.
The capriciousness of government decisions of business “importance” has already been patent in Michigan’s and other states’ shut-down orders. Residents of New York City still have access to the city’s great parks, probably because Mayor Bill DeBlasio uses one of them himself. (It is not the park that one might predict, however. Though New York’s mayoral mansion is within easy walking distance of Manhattan’s Central Park and is located within a smaller riverside park, DeBlasio is driven 24 miles most mornings to and from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for jogging, since that is his preferred venue.) De Blasio does not have a young child, so New York City’s children’s playgrounds are now boarded up. Ditto the schools.
It also helps in being designated “essential” to be part of the traditional big government portfolio. The construction of affordable housing, homeless shelters, and public housing projects may continue under the New York shutdown, but not garden variety commercial and residential building. Renewable energy projects to support those homeless shelters and affordable housing may also continue.
Cuomo’s latest shut-down order was statewide. As of April 16, 11 of New York’s 62 counties had no coronavirus deaths, and 31 counties had five or fewer deaths. Thirty-nine New York counties had death rates of five or less per 100,000 of population. For comparison, the national death rate from all causes was 723.6 per 100,000 in 2018, nearly 145 times greater than the five or fewer coronavirus death rate in New York’s upstate counties. The national death rate for heart disease in 2018 was 163.6 per 100,000, nearly 33 times the five or fewer per 100,000 coronavirus death rate in those 39 counties. New York City’s coronavirus death rate was 115 per 100,000—23 times the low upstate death rate. The overall New York State coronavirus death rate—71 per 100,000—is 14 times the low county death rate.
A large proportion of New York state coronavirus deaths (as elsewhere in the country) occurred in nursing homes and other congregate care facilities for the elderly: nearly 18 percent (representing 3448 deaths) of all coronavirus deaths statewide, as of April 19. Ninety-three percent of all coronavirus hospitalizations in the state have occurred in the southernmost part of the state—from Westchester and Rockland Counties, just north of New York City, to Long Island. Yet counties with minimal caseloads, no deaths, and/or no nursing homes now are having their economic lifeblood sucked out of them, though they bear no resemblance to New York City and its surrounding areas.
A day after Cuomo announced the moratorium extension, representatives from four upstate counties appealed to him for relief from his order. The combined population of Jefferson, Lewis, Oswego, and St. Lawrence counties is about 361,000 people, but those counties (located east and north of Lake Ontario) have had only 232 coronavirus cases among them, a handful of hospitalizations, and only one death. Constituents were inundating the officials’ offices with concerns about the “devastating impact” of the shutdown on the region’s economic vitality. “Why were upstate counties subject to the same restrictions as New York City?” voters asked.
Now that big manufacturing has exited upstate New York, small local businesses are the only thing keeping many communities alive. But many of those local businesses, already struggling, will have exhausted all their resources once the governor decides that they may, in theory, reopen. On April 21, Cuomo announced that state bureaucrats would start evaluating whether particular regions of New York could start to reopen before the downstate area, depending on whether their caseload had plateaued. This was a welcome concession to reality, even if Cuomo’s office provided no timetable for the reevaluation process.
The focus on saving “just one life” from the coronavirus, as Cuomo put it in March, to the exclusion of all other considerations likely will prove a catastrophic failure of policymaking. The devastation to individuals’ ability to flourish or even survive may soon become irreversible. Every scientific model used to justify these economic death sentences has been discredited. But even if those models were proven reliable, government decision-making must turn toward opening up. Officials must be made to justify, through a transparent analysis of costs and benefits, all further mandates to prevent people from working. Otherwise, there may be nothing recognizable as our economy to return to, with a resulting cost in human life and well-being that will match anything the coronavirus could inflict.