New York – My city’s government has closed the entrance to the parking lot of a park near my home in an effort to prevent people from congregating. The main result, as far as I can judge, is that a lot of people are irritating the neighborhood outside the entrance by parking their cars there illegally. The closure does not appear to have done anything to stop the spread of the coronavirus, even if crowding in parks were a vector for transmission — which a recent study suggests it isn’t.
But overzealous or otherwise foolish lockdown policies are a good way to increase the size of that minority and make its case look reasonable. The protesters do not have to look far for examples, which are everywhere.
Mayors in several southern U.S. locales tried to prohibit drive-in church services before an outcry or court order got them to back down. In some cities, police have forcibly ejected people from subways for not wearing masks.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer allowed Home Depot to stay open but forced it to close off parts of its stores. “I just don’t understand,” said one Michigander doing odd jobs. “You can put up drywall, but you just can’t paint it right now because that’s not essential.”
Most people understand that even basically sensible policies can be taken too far. But excess in enforcing social distancing poses special risks that deserve attention from government officials. First, they make the lockdowns less bearable and raise their costs. The would-be house painter in Michigan, the aspiring churchgoers in the South, the parents who would like to let their kids run around in the sunlight: All have legitimate complaints.
Second, they undermine confidence in the intelligence and sensitivity of the officials and the policies. People are putting up with the restrictions out of a sense that they’re unfortunately needed. But you don’t have to be a die-hard libertarian to think that when something is not necessary for governments to do, it is necessary for them not to do it, especially when that something is issuing orders to citizens.
Social distancing depends on voluntary compliance. It therefore requires that the public has confidence that the people leading the efforts are not just looking for excuses to boss people around, that they are mindful of the costs of their policies, that they have given some thought to what they are doing.
This confidence has already been undermined by the shifting and sometimes bad advice officials and their journalistic interpreters have given over the last few months. They have made dubious claims about the value of masks, about the safety of subways and about how fearsome the virus is in the first place. The level of social trust is a public health resource, and governments should be trying to increase rather than deplete it.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg columnist.
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