Do Legal Restrictions Account for the Downward Trend in New COVID-19 Cases?
The New York Times thinks so, but the data do not fit that hypothesis very
Jacob Sullum | 8.24.2020 2:45 PM
(Ffikretow | Dreamstime.com)
Three weeks after newly identified COVID-19 cases began falling in the
United States, The New York Times is acknowledging the downward trend, which
it attributes to "effective restrictions." That explanation fits neatly with
the paper's reflexive enthusiasm for lockdowns, but it does not fit the data
Consider Arizona, where the seven-day average of daily new cases, according
to Worldometer's tallies, rose more than tenfold between Memorial Day and
July 7. Alarmed by that increase, Gov. Doug Ducey ordered gyms, bars, movie
theaters, and water parks to close on July 23, while indoor dining in
restaurants continued at 50 percent of capacity, a cap Ducey imposed on July
11. But the downward trend in new cases, which had fallen by 82 percent from
the July 7 peak as of yesterday, began well before the new restrictions
could have had a measurable impact (taking into account the typical five-day
lag between infection and symptoms that might cause people to seek testing).
That suggests other factors are at least partly responsible for the decline.
Newly confirmed cases are also falling in Georgia, which did not respond to
this summer's spike with new business restrictions. The seven-day average,
which rose fivefold between May 25 and July 29, has fallen by 35 percent
In Texas, the seven-day average of newly identified cases rose tenfold
between May 25 and July 15. It has since fallen by nearly half. Gov. Greg
Abbott closed bars and reduced the cap on indoor dining from 75 percent to
50 percent of capacity on June 26. Yet cases continued rising for nearly
three weeks, longer than the maximum incubation period. The story is similar
in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis closed bars the same day as Abbott. The
seven-day average of daily new cases peaked three weeks later, when it was
nearly 16 times higher than it was on May 25, then fell by two-thirds as of
California Gov. Gavin Newsom closed bars, zoos, and museums on July 13, when
he also banned indoor dining in restaurants. The seven-day average of daily
new cases peaked 12 days later, when it was nearly five times the number on
May 25, then fell for two weeks before rising again. The decline resumed in
mid-August, and as of yesterday the average was down 42 percent from the
July 25 peak. That pattern likewise does not easily fit the hypothesis that
new legal restrictions account for most or all of the decline.
California's restrictions, including a total ban on indoor dining, are more
severe than the statewide limits in Arizona, Florida, or Texas, which
enforce a 50 percent cap. Yet the latter three states have seen bigger
declines in confirmed cases, although they also saw bigger increases in June
It is plausible that limiting the options for people to get together,
especially indoors in close quarters, would reduce virus transmission. But
it is difficult to disentangle the impact of government edicts from the
impact of increased voluntary precautions, both of which can be expected in
response to spikes in cases. Just as it is hard to assess the additional
contribution of general lockdowns at a time when Americans were already
responding to the COVID-19 epidemic by dramatically changing their behavior,
it is hard to say how much credit relatively modest legal restrictions
should get for reversing the recent surge in cases.
Given the timing of the downward trends in these Sunbelt states, attributing
them mostly or entirely to new legal restrictions seems more than a little
hasty. The Times alludes to voluntary changes in behavior just once in its
story, citing a University of Arizona professor of public health policy who
mentioned "news media coverage of the heightened risk" as one factor that
helps explain the decline in cases. The implication, which the Times
predictably fails to unpack, is that people responded to that "heightened
risk" by being more careful—e.g., by limiting social interactions, avoiding
crowds, following physical distancing guidelines, and wearing face masks in
The RNC Shouldn't Be Bragging About the Paycheck
What about face mask mandates? Even if businesses were already requiring
customers to wear masks, a legal requirement could help reduce disputes
about those policies and increase compliance. Yet Newsom mandated masks in
California on June 18, more than a month before new cases peaked in that
state, while Abbott followed suit in Texas on July 2, nearly two weeks
before that state's peak. Neither Arizona, Florida, nor Georgia has a
statewide mask requirement, although some local governments in those states
have imposed their own mandates.
"Of the states that are driving the decrease" in new cases, the Times says,
"all have at least some local mask mandates, and most have paused or
reversed statewide reopening policies." That gloss, which dismisses the
absence of statewide mask mandates, elides the difference between imposing
restrictions and delaying their removal, and ignores the states without new
restrictions, makes the Times seem desperate to credit government policies
for positive trends that ultimately depend on how people decide to behave.
Granting that legal restrictions have some impact on virus transmission, the
extent of those restrictions is still a matter of controversy, given their
substantial costs and uncertain benefits. The Times describes a "flattening"
of the COVID-19 curve in states where restaurants are still serving
customers indoors, for example. Does that mean Newsom went too far by
banning indoor dining? Is there an important distinction between bars and
restaurants, as DeSantis, Abbott, and Ducey seem to think, or is that
premise dangerously mistaken? One thing seems clear from recent COVID-19
trends: The curve can be flattened without general lockdowns, without
statewide mask mandates, and even (as in Georgia) without new, post-lockdown
restrictions on businesses.
In all of these states, the decline in new cases has been followed by a
decline in daily COVID-19 fatalities since earlier this month. Nationwide,
according to Worldometer's numbers, the seven-day average of daily new
cases, which exceeded 69,000 on July 25, had fallen to about 43,000 as of
yesterday. The seven-day average of daily deaths fell from nearly 1,200 on
August 4 to fewer than 1,000 yesterday. Independent data scientist Youyang
Gu, who has a good track record of predicting COVID-19 fatalities, is
currently projecting a nationwide death toll of about 227,000 by November 1,
compared to about 176,000 now.
Is that number lower than it would have been without last spring's
lockdowns, and will the ultimate death toll likewise be lower than it
otherwise would have been? On that question, the Times seems to be hedging.
In late June, the paper noted that "the shared sacrifice of millions of
Americans suspending their lives—with jobs lost, businesses shuttered, daily
routines upended—has not been enough to beat back a virus whose staying
power around the world is only still being grasped." The implication of that
story was that lockdowns were lifted too soon and too quickly. But since the
sweeping social and economic restrictions that most states imposed could not
feasibly have been sustained until effective vaccines were deployed, it was
inevitable that we would eventually face the situation we now confront.
The virus is still here, as everyone knew it would be. And to the extent
that lockdowns were effective in reducing transmission, they left a
population more vulnerable to infection than it otherwise would have been.
In this context, it makes sense to concentrate on protecting Americans in
high-risk groups rather than younger, healthier people who face a negligible
risk of dying from COVID-19.
Recent data suggest we have had some success on that score. Even as cases
spiked this summer, the nationwide crude case fatality rate—deaths as a
share of confirmed cases—continued to decline, dropping by nearly 50 percent
since mid-May. That trend largely reflects a younger, healthier mix of
patients. The key to minimizing the death toll while we wait for a vaccine
is preventing new cases among older, frailer people. The debate should focus
on the best ways to do that rather than recriminations about what went wrong
with lockdowns. And in weighing our options, it would be foolhardy to assume
that government policy is all that matters while overlooking the crucial
role of the decisions that each of us makes every day.