As I watched certain viral videos flying around social media over the past 48 hours, I had the exact same thought as New York Post columnist Karol Markowicz. She wrote: "I love scenes like this of reconciliation, but seriously, the pandemic is so over that we're hugging and shaking hands with strangers? I saw my friend today from several feet away. I have to force my [four-year-old] into a mask. Are all social distancing guidelines dead?" We'll return to the COVID implications in a moment, but I'd like to make another point first. Unlike some conservatives, I don't have a single problem with police officers defusing tensions by taking a knee in solidarity against police brutality. I'm not a fan of kneeling during the national anthem, and scenes of white people kneeling as a broad apology for historic and ongoing wrongs strike me as well-intentioned but misplaced. Law enforcement officers kneeling down as a means of demonstrating and communicating to righteously angry and disgusted crowds that the killing of George Floyd is not condoned by good and faithful cops seems productive and worthwhile. And yet, as Karol notes, moving scenes like this raise serious questions about the spread of the coronavirus:
Protesters just told police on bullhorn if officers took a knee they would go home. Officers took a knee. Protesters came up to cops and shook their hands, hugged them. Remarkable. pic.twitter.com/WcymGYiUPC— ScottGordonNBC5 (@ScottGordonNBC5) June 2, 2020
The hugging and hand-shaking is genuinely wonderful to see in this context. Nevertheless, I can't help but notice that many of the officers and protesters are not wearing face coverings, and are certainly not social distancing. For weeks, Americans have been forced to close their businesses, mandated to forego many activities, and required not to attend worship services. Non-violent protests and acts of civil disobedience on these fronts were met with high-decibel media scorn, aggressive scolding from politicians, and even arrests. Based on all the public health guidance, the pandemic is not over (despite undeniable progress and hopeful signs), and many restrictions and recommendations remain firmly in place. And then, in a flash, it all seemed to just...vanish. Mass street protests, some of which descended into riots, received laudatory press coverage and applause from politicians.
To be clear, I believe the cause about which these non-violent demonstrators are marching is fully justified under the circumstances. But if prematurely lifting various orders and regulations was nearly uniformly viewed as an express ticket to new virus outbreaks that would place vulnerable populations at serious risk of hospitalization or death, how are these large gatherings any different -- if not worse, in some ways -- than other activities that remain barred? Daily News columnist Robert George has seen enough, writing that the lockdown is effectively "over," and calling on Gov. Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio to formally end it:
End New York City’s lockdown. Not next Monday, now. Not a piecemeal “Phase One” ending that means construction and manufacturing can resume, along with curbside retail. End it all. Start bringing this city back to life before it’s too late. End it. Sorry, but your precious metrics and thresholds are as aflame as the average NYPD cruiser. End it. Yes, you both expressed worry Monday morning about infection spikes in the coming weeks due to the protesters (though the mayor had to be prompted via a reporter’s question), but you both barely mentioned it in your weekend briefings. By opting not to impose either citywide or statewide curfews over four nights — by waiting to announce a curfew for Monday evening — you essentially conceded the rules do not apply for the marching thousands.
That means you both made the decision that certain things — political protest — are more important than public health considerations. Little more than two weeks ago, New Yorkers saw police officers throwing a young mother forcibly to the ground for the “offense” of not having her mask on correctly. Yet for four days, thousands marched and assembled close together, hardly any social distancing either with themselves or with the police (many of whom were maskless). The rules do not apply for mass protest...It’s time to end them for everyone else who have been scrupulously altering their behavior for three months...The precedent has been set and affirmed by our mayor and governor: Political protest is a legitimate cause to take to the streets. You will have made marching for an end to the lockdown legitimate...End it. Before it ends us.
Read the whole thing. As I asked yesterday, what will the fallout look like if major, mostly urban, population centers experience worrisome surges in severe coronavirus cases in a few weeks -- particularly in communities that are medically known to be more susceptible to the virus? Some in the media will undoubtedly carry on blaming the politicians they always blame, but many voters will likely draw different conclusions and start asking tough questions. Then again, what happens if those spikes don't occur? How will the many millions of law-abiding Americans, whom George refers to as 'scrupulous' adherents to disruptive and painful health guidelines, react if the very sorts of activities they've been endlessly told by experts would be devastating...aren't?
And what will they think of political and media figures who lectured them harshly about complying with stay-at-home and distancing orders, only to stay mostly silent, or even cheer on packed protests? More broadly, what will they make of those pandemic-related orders in the first place, and the credibility of those who pushed them? At a moment where public trust is sorely needed, many of our institutions and leaders are failing. Unfortunately, much of the corrosive mistrust has been earned.