Two Years to Slow the Spread
Reason magazine|March 2022
Government can’t stop moving the Covid-19 goal posts.
By Matt Welch. Photo by Luis Alvarez/Getty

On december 6, 2021, in his last major act as mayor of New York City, Democrat Bill de Blasio announced that, to stop the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19, all 184,000 private businesses in the city would henceforth be commanded to enforce vaccine mandates on their employees, and all children ages 5 and up (including tourists from countries that hadn’t yet approved pediatric vaccines) would need to show proof of full immunization before entering most indoor venues.

“Look at a country like Germany right now—shutdowns, restrictions,” de Blasio explained in a follow-up interview. “We cannot let that happen. So we had to take decisive action.”

Five days later, as the Northeast was experiencing a third consecutive winter surge of coronavirus cases, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that all businesses in New York would be required to ensure their employees and customers were either provably vaccinated or masked indoors at all times; each violation would be subject to a $1,000 fine. The new rules were applicable through January 15, “after which the State will re-evaluate based on current conditions.”

Hochul’s announcement came almost six months to the day after her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, had lifted almost all statewide COVID restrictions, including most indoor masking, on the occasion of New York meeting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) target of having 70 percent of adults receive at least one vaccination dose. “We can now return to life as we know it,” Cuomo crowed then. By the time of Hochul’s reversal, the one-shot rate among adult New Yorkers had risen to 93 percent.

The goal posts on pandemic policy haven’t just been shifted, they’ve been uprooted, hitched to a helicopter, and transported to a different county. Joe Biden as president-elect on December 4, 2020, said, “I don’t think [vaccines] should be mandatory.” His spokeswoman Jen Psaki on July 23, 2021, added, “That’s not the role of the federal government.” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky stated unequivocally on July 31 that “there will be no federal mandate.”

Biden announced a federal vaccine mandate on private employers with 100 or more workers five weeks later.

“I’ve tried everything in my power to get people vaccinated,” the president maintained. “But even after all those efforts, we still had more than a quarter of people in the United States who were eligible for vaccinations but didn’t get the shot....So, while I didn’t race to do it right away, that’s why I’ve had to move toward requirements.” Look at what you made him do.

It was easier to make fun of presidential dissembling about pandemic policy back when Donald Trump was holding extemporaneous bull sessions about COVID every day on the White House lawn, or when he infamously unveiled on March 16, 2020, a bullet-pointed presentation titled “15 Days to Slow the Spread.” Even factoring in hindsight bias, that was an absurdly irresponsible prediction to make about a virus already ripping through every continent at a time when testing (especially in the U.S.) was woefully inadequate.

But Trump back then, like his then-lionized, now-disgraced rival Cuomo, was operating in an environment exponentially more impoverished, in terms of both knowledge and mitigation strategies, than what public officials enjoy now. The one-shot vaccination rate for American adults was not 86 percent (as it is as this magazine goes to press) but 0 percent. We were still being reminded to wash our hands several times a day for 20 seconds at a time and implored to studiously avoid touching our faces. And perhaps because the idea of government dictating most human activity outside the home was then still novel, politicians tended to tether restrictions to specific metrics. (Cuomo’s “flatten the curve” mantra referred to the trajectory of hospitalizations vs. the hard number of hospital beds.) Immediate-term discomforts were routinely sold with visions of long-term relief.

“If everyone makes…these critical changes and sacrifices now,” Trump said on “Slow the Spread” day, as a phalanx of top public health officials looked on, “we will rally together as one nation, and we will defeat the virus, and we’re going to have a big celebration all together. With several weeks of focused action, we can turn the corner and turn it quickly.”

As the families of 800,000 dead Americans can grimly attest, no such corners were ever turned. Yet what has replaced those naive and prematurely optimistic projections is something no less cruel.

Benchmarks for lifting restrictions have been serially rewritten or quietly dropped, often with little explanation. Major policy promises have been made and broken within the same week. And you can’t just blame the capriciousness on the shifting viral facts on the ground—bureaucrats have been agonizingly slow to recognize advances in knowledge that support policy loosening yet lightning-fast when reacting to any new source of fear. It took the Biden administration and his fellow Democrats in New York no time at all to put the clampdown on the omicron variant, but it took the CDC and most coastal state governments more than a year to internalize that people are not catching COVID-19 outdoors.

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