Would a National Lockdown Have Saved the U.S. From COVID-19?
The United States has seen more COVID-19 deaths per capita than all but 10 countries. In a one-year retrospective on the pandemic, The New York Times blames the lack of “a unified national strategy,” which it says led to a “fractured” response.
At bottom, that critique—like federal COVID-19 adviser Anthony Fauci’s complaint that “the states are very often given a considerable amount of leeway in doing things the way they want”—is an objection to the American system of government. Under the Constitution, the federal government is limited to specifically enumerated powers, which do not include a general authority to protect the public from communicable diseases. That responsibility lies primarily with the states, which retain a broad “police power” that goes far beyond the authority vested in the president or Congress.
The Times complains that President Donald Trump “turned over control” of the epidemic to the nation’s governors back in April, telling them, “You’re going to call your own shots.” But contrary to Trump’s assertion that he had “total” authority over COVID-19 control measures, that power was never his to grant. And it is odd that the Times wishes Trump had taken complete control of the situation, given his resistance to the sweeping social and economic restrictions that the Times favors. Any “unified national strategy” imposed by Trump almost certainly would have entailed overriding the lockdowns imposed by states such as California and New York, which the Times credits with saving many lives.
It’s not clear the Times is right about that. Quoting Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious disease expert at Columbia, it says “the rush to reopen” was “the opportune moment that was lost.” If so, states that imposed lockdowns early, lifted them gradually, and quickly re-imposed restrictions in response to surges in cases and deaths should have fared better than less cautious states. But a comparison of Texas and California, the two most populous states, does not provide much evidence to support that hypothesis.
In Texas, the Times says, Gov. Greg Abbott “quickly pivot[ed] toward reopening” by late April, which it says led to a spike in cases and deaths last summer. Yet after Texas “opened back up” on May 1, a month and a half passed before the state saw a sharp increase in the seven-day average of daily new cases.
Abbott closed bars and reduced the legal limit on restaurant occupancy to 50 percent in late June. But Texas remained more or less open, and newly identified infections, which peaked in mid-July, dropped to relatively low levels until the
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