Staff Columnist

What not to do in a public health crisis

Governors are surveilling churches, cordoning off seeds and shutting down the ocean during the COVID-19 pandemic

In this Sunday, April 5, 2020, photo, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks about the novel coronavirus during a media confe
In this Sunday, April 5, 2020, photo, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks about the novel coronavirus during a media conference at the state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

In a national emergency like the one we are living through now, government officials have incredible power to restrict individual rights to the name of health and safety.

In all the hysteria over the coronavirus pandemic, some politicians seem to have forgotten the Dr. Ian Malcolm principle from the 1993 film Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Many American governors are dumping grab bags of temporary regulations on their subjects, handing down whatever orders they can concoct a legal basis for, regardless of whether the new rules represent sound or workable public policy. The coronavirus response provides cautionary tales for leadership during a crisis.

Easter took place this past weekend but most churches wisely did not hold large in-person services, in accordance with social distancing practices. In some places where faith leaders flouted the prohibition against mass gatherings, the government sent law enforcement officers to respond.

Jarring images came from Kentucky, where the state patrol surveilled church parking lots. The governor warned that people going to Easter services could have their license plate numbers recorded and face follow-up action. We know from history, even recently in our own country, that building government lists of members of a particular religious group has disastrous consequences for our civil liberties.

In Michigan, the governor’s far-reaching business shutdown orders have led to confusion and criticism. As the state’s largest newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, reported last week, Michiganders can still buy lottery tickets but not vegetable seeds. Social media posts show retail stores’ gardening sections blocked off with yellow tape.

In what world could supplies to grow your own food be considered non-essential? It’s enough to make you give another thought to those radical conspiracy theories about shadowy figures seizing a crisis to force us into reliance on the state and its corporate partners to meet our basic needs.

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Several states and cities have taken to physically detaining people who break social distancing rules.

In California this month, a man was arrested for paddleboarding against the governor’s orders. He was in the ocean by himself, until a Los Angeles County patrol boat crew pulled him out and took him to be booked at the sheriff’s station, local news station KTLA reported.

In New York, dozens of people have faced action for illegally congregating. In one recent case reported by the Intercept, a woman said she was in a parking lot with her boyfriend when she was arrested and then held in a cell with two dozen other women for 36 hours. The arresting officers, more than 1,000 of whose co-workers have tested positive for COVID-19, reportedly were not wearing masks.

When governments impose rules, enforcement matters, even if those edicts are made with good intentions. We can be steadfast in our support for best public health practices, but still stop short of forcible compliance.

There are huge and important differences between things that are bad and things that are so bad that they should be halted at the point of a handgun.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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