It is well established that wearing face masks confers a high degree of protection from the coronavirus plague on both wearers and those around them. Plenty of documentation shows social distancing also helps, as do frequent hand washing, good ventilation and disinfecting surfaces that are frequently touched.
Also effective are quarantines of new arrivals from other states and countries, as well as isolating those with positive COVID-19 test results.
But as infections of the virus accelerated across California this fall, some other tactics ordered by authorities like Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state health department and most county health officers looked a lot like guesswork, seemingly flailing at the virus without much science to back the moves.
Justifiably desperate to keep hospital beds and front-line personnel available and healthy in the face of advancing infection rates and hospital admissions, these officials mandated sweeping lifestyle changes in at least 41 counties with 94% of Californians.
It’s unknown whether the new measures can do what once was called “flattening the curve.” No one knows if the current, almost statewide 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew will slow infection. One thing for certain: It won’t achieve much if it’s not enforced, and many county sheriffs from Los Angeles to Sacramento and beyond are not bothering. None has been disciplined yet for such scofflaw practices.
That’s because of uncertainty over the curfew’s efficacy. Authorities also say much of the recent COVID-19 spread stems from family gatherings large and small, from weddings to Thanksgiving dinners to relatives watching TV together. Curfews won’t touch that.
Plus, no one has reliably measured how much of the spread can be traced to such gatherings if attendees were masked. Which raises the question of whether some of what we hear from health authorities stems not from reality, but from theories taught in graduate epidemiology classes.
It’s a one-size-fits-all approach unjust to areas where folks have not crowded mask-free into bars and nightclubs.
Things are similar with restaurants and gyms, mostly closed to indoor activity since mid-July. This also is a sweeping approach that ignores vast differences in how safely these businesses operated. Some gyms, for example, installed thorough ventilation systems while they were shuttered between mid-March and late June.
Many gyms also limited occupancy when they reopened for a while in the summer, sanitizing machines and weights hourly, while requiring all users to wear masks.
But one-size-fits-all rule makers re-closed conscientious businesses at the next disease surge right along with irresponsible outfits. Regular inspections could have determined which ones might safely stay open and which should not, but this did not happen.
It’s similar for restaurants, where authorities months ago banned indoor dining in most counties, but later allowed outdoor service. One November report indicated just 3.5% of all infections successfully contact-traced in California originated in restaurants. Yet, as infection rates and hospitalizations spiked during the late fall, all outdoor dining was ordered to close in many areas, including Los Angeles County, the state’s biggest population center.
That county’s health director said inspectors found at least 80% of eateries serving in open air did not socially distance their tables properly. So all restaurants were closed. How fair is this to the 20% that lost money by separating tables widely for the sake of social distance?
Plus, the wholesale restaurant closings put several hundred thousand persons out of work, some of that toll probably unnecessarily.
The well-meaning but autocratic health officials now serving as benevolent dictators under various laws for dealing with emergencies believe what they impose does save lives.
Could they save those same lives if they enforced their rules mainly on businesses that ignore safety procedures, rather than on everyone?
Meanwhile, hope is now widespread that an impending mass vaccination campaign can end this crisis and the unfairness it has inflicted as officials flailed at a situation no active medical professional had previously experienced.
And after it ends, lawmakers at every level from county boards to Congress must reexamine emergency laws and make appropriate changes to create new rules hinging on information, not speculation and untested theory. If they don’t, we will have learned nothing from this year’s very painful experiences.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].