"I'm not sure we know what we're doing," San Mateo County Health Officer Scott Morrow recently confessed, referring to the myriad puzzling restrictions state and local governments have imposed in the name of fighting COVID-19. Morrow's doubts are striking, because last spring he joined other San Francisco Bay Area officials in imposing the nation's first lockdowns, which he still thinks were justified.
Morrow's remarkable statement, which he posted on his department's website earlier this month, shows that politicians and bureaucrats are still struggling to justify edicts that are often arbitrary and scientifically dubious. A year into the COVID-19 epidemic, many of them have yet to digest the dangers of carelessly exercising their public health powers.
Although research in other countries has shown that K-12 schools are not an important source of virus transmission, they remain closed in California and many other jurisdictions, largely because of resistance from teachers unions. "The adverse effects for some of our kids will likely last for generations," Morrow warned.
Morrow, who has served as San Mateo County's health officer since 1992, also criticized the stay-at-home order that California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued on Dec. 3, which he said is "rife with inconsistencies." Although the new restrictions will mean "more job loss, more hunger, more despair and desperation... and more death from causes other than COVID," Morrow said, they were imposed without evidence that the activities they target are "major drivers of transmission."
A conspicuous example is Newsom's ban on outdoor restaurant dining, which applies in regions where the available ICU capacity drops below 15 percent. This month a Los Angeles County judge said such bans are "not grounded in science, evidence, or logic."
California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly has admitted the state ban was not based on evidence that outdoor dining plays a significant role in spreading COVID-19. Ghaly said the policy, a grave threat to businesses that were already barely surviving, is "not a comment on the relative safety of outdoor dining" but is instead aimed at discouraging Californians from leaving home.
Ghaly assumes that giving people fewer things to do outside their homes will push them toward safer behavior. But as Morrow noted, "these greater restrictions are likely to drive more activity indoors," a "much riskier" setting.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham apparently did not consider that possibility when she imposed a two-week "pause" last month that shut down golf courses and state parks. Although many parks remain open in California, camping is banned in restricted regions, and the state says residents "should not travel significant distances for recreation."
COVID-19 restrictions are equally capricious in other states. New York Gov. Cuomo last week banned indoor dining in New York City even though his own data showed that restaurants accounted for just 1.4 percent of infections, while Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz banned both indoor and outdoor dining at a time when 1.7 percent of cases were linked to restaurants.
Another Walz decree was so sweeping and invasive that even The New York Times, usually a big fan of COVID-19 restrictions, was taken aback. Walz "took the extraordinary step of banning people from different households from meeting indoors or outdoors, even though evidence has consistently shown the outdoors to be relatively safe," the paper reported.
Cuomo's eagerness to show he was doing something about the epidemic led him to impose onerous limits on "houses of worship," a policy so blatantly discriminatory that it was overturned by the Supreme Court. Even when ill-advised COVID-19 restrictions don't violate the Constitution, they provoke resentment and resistance, which undermine compliance with the sensible precautions that are crucial to containing the virus until vaccines are widely available.
"Just because one has the legal authority to do something doesn't mean one has to use it, or that using it is the best course of action," Morrow noted. "The power and authority to control this pandemic lies primarily in your hands, not mine."
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @JacobSullum.