Local COVID restrictions have turned states into the laboratories of inconsistent chaos

Every city seems to have wildly different COVID rules around dining, shopping, schooling, in-person meet ups, and cultural events.
The rules seem to be made up on the spot in each city instead of following a consistent pattern related to COVID case spread and public health.
The rules are starting to make less and less sense and are only making people more and more confused.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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As COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths soar, states and cities are justified in once again curtailing risky activities. But what is a risky activity? In parsing the same imperfect data of how, and how quickly, the not-so-novel-anymore coronavirus spreads, states and cities have come up with a bizarre array of different restrictions that reflect neither local severity nor harm posed by a particular endeavor. Consider the contrast between Los Angeles and New York. A resident of LA has a straightforward instruction to follow, effective as of early December (and tightened last week): “All persons within the City of Los Angeles must stay home.” A person strictly following the rules can’t even have an adult sibling over to the backyard for an outdoor meal, nor take a beach stroll with a friend unless he and his masked friend stay six feet apart. Indoor and outdoor dining: closed. Museums: closed. Zoo: closed. Barbershop: closed. Stores: open at 20% capacity.  A New York City resident, by contrast, can eat outside (provided she doesn’t mind the below-freezing weather), but not inside. She can eat in an “outdoor” restaurant so enclosed with a temporary shed structure that it might as well be inside. She can go to a museum or a zoo, or have nine people over for an indoor dinner party. She can get her hair cut or her nails done. More confusion? 

In Boston, the museums are closed, but restaurants are open. In New Orleans, the bars are open; in Baton Rouge, they’re closed. Judging by dining curfews, the risk of virus transmission rapidly accelerates after 10 pm if you’re in New York or Hoboken. In New Orleans, the witching hour is 11 pm. The rules don’t seem to correlate with COVID spreadThese different rules don’t have any correlation with the current pace of spread. In Los Angeles County, for example, the number of people hospitalized has nearly quintupled since before Thanksgiving, from fewer than 1,000 in early November to nearly 5,000 a month later. But New York, too, has seen similar growth, from fewer than 50 people hospitalized in early November to more than 200 in mid-December.LA’s current positivity rate is nearly 14%, while New York’s is 6% – but in early November, LA’s hovered around 4%, while New York’s was below 2%. In Boston, 8% of people test positive; in New Orleans, the figure is just shy of 5%. In New Orleans, though, the positivity rate has accelerated from below 1%in early November; in Boston, it’s risen from 5%. Only one discern able pattern holds: public officials are still focused on raw levels of cases, not on rapidity of spread. LA hit certain thresholds all at once — and locked down. New York isn’t learning from this lesson, but desultory implementing its various levels of closures, dependent on certain thresholds. When the city’s rate crossed 3%, it moved to shut down indoor dining. Both New Orleans and Boston, now, too, are contemplating a dining shutdown. 

Yet this approach ignores the fact that if you’ve gone from 1%to 5% in the span of a few weeks, you’ll likely go from 5% to 10%, and higher. The state and local officials who make these shutdown decisions make things worse by dithering.Weeks ago, New York knew, or should have known, that the case trend would inevitably cross 3%, putting a halt to indoor eating. Yet even when cases crossed 3%, the state and city delayed this move, waiting for the positivity rate to reach 4%. New Orleans and Boston, too, are almost certain to shut down restaurants soon. So why not do it now, avoiding yet more exponential spread?  Inconsistent, confusing, and slowStates and cities are also internally inconsistent in their approach to risk. You can’t eat with a mask on, but you can go to a museum with a mask on. It is not at all clear why Boston is allowing the former but not the latter. Los Angeles’ insistence that it must close outdoor dining “to prevent spread at a single table” doesn’t square with its insistence on closing the mostly outdoor zoo, where people can wear masks and not linger near each other. Why not make a distinction between having one lonely person over to your house, to sit on the other side of the table and having a raucous, crowded house party? 

The longer states and cities delay closing relatively dangerous maskless indoor dining, the more likely they are to be forced into broader shutdowns, during which they don’t discriminate among the potentials for exposure. States, and their respective cities, are supposed to be the laboratories of democracy. It may turn out, when all this is over, that a state like California, with a far more aggressive approach and a death rate of 52 people per 100,000, below the national average of 90, fares better than a state like Florida, which dispensed with most pandemic restrictions in early fall, and which has a death rate of 92 and counting. Yet states with like-minded goals in protecting human health are not supposed to be laboratories of inconsistent chaos when faced with the same sets of data on how, and how fast, COVID-19 spreads. The disparities undermine public confidence — which harms compliance with the rules. No governor or mayor has really leveled with the public: with a virus as easily transmissible as the common cold, any near-full resumption of normal activities will result in a newly exponential spread, which means, in a state that wants to reduce the death rate, more shutdowns.  State and local officials spent months making elaborately calibrated plans, down to which kind of instruments musicians can play in Boston restaurants (string, not wind), then waited too long when trends turned against them to implement those plans.

So it turns out that despite all this planning, you’re prohibited from looking at a giraffe from 50 feet away just the same as you’re prohibited from going to a basement rave. The cycle begins anew, until COVID is over, one way or the other. It’s just that the details are unaccountably different, depending on where you are. Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. LoadingSomething is loading.