This past week was fall break for my kids. In the Beforetimes, we had planned a trip to Hawaii, but the Aloha State still has a two week stay-in-your-hotel quarantine, which makes for a pretty lame one week vacation. So we cancelled, and went to Florida instead for a slightly less exotic tropical getaway.
We’re not the only ones. If you count COVID stats only, Hawaii is a success story. But in a great lesson in not relying solely on a single societal risk in decision-making, Hawaii is also one of the states hardest hit economically, with population shrinkage due to lost economic opportunities (a trend already underway in a state paradoxically hostile to the haoles who prop up its economy) set to keep the pain coming for years to come. When your economy relies on tourism, blockading your island just isn’t going to work out. So even though cases surged this summer and death rates are now climbing, Hawaii’s government is bowing to the needs of local businesses and responding to the competition from freer places like Florida. Tourists are going to be welcomed back to the islands next week.
Florida has some of the “worst” numbers in the country on paper with respect to COVID, but nevertheless has never been a hard lockdown state, which is one of the reasons we decided to go there to spend our money. (As if we needed another reminder, this is the beauty of a federal republic where states get to chart their own courses with respect to things like balancing liberty and safety.) Only 0.0007% of Floridians have succumbed to the disease, after all, and being relatively young and healthy, we certainly felt that was an acceptable level of risk.
Disney World is open, unlike California’s Disneyland. It’s not as crowded as usual – it reminds me of going to a Disney park 20 years ago, except for the masks – but it’s still plenty busy, and without a doubt everyone there is being regularly exposed to any number of pathogens. Given the continually mounting data demonstrating that lockdown orders aren’t helpful as a public health measure, it certainly makes one wonder why California is willing to tolerate an 11.4% unemployment rate while Florida’s is only 7.4% and falling. One wonders how many Californians are spending their money further from home when they otherwise would have spent it locally.
Part of the difference between California and Florida, I think, is that California politicians are simply more arrogant and less responsive to the people they represent. That’s what happens when you have effective one-party rule — the government feels a lot more comfortable causing people pain, and politicians there know they don’t face any realistic threat of losing their power even if their policies make no sense from a cost-benefit standpoint. No wonder so many people are fleeing that state. I, for one, would certainly prefer to live in a place where the government is trying to suck up to me as a voter instead of thinking it can treat me however it wants with impunity, but then, that’s why I’m not a socialist.
One of the reasons lockdowns have been so ineffectual in the real world is that human beings just don’t act the way epidemiological models assume, because Americans don’t just do what we’re told when government waves a scepter. Rather, we weigh our own risks, and act in our own individual interests. If part of the risk is that the government will take our lives or “merely” our livelihoods, that will be become part of – but not all of – the equation.
In a free society, governments serve people, and not the other way around. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for leadership – obviously that’s important. But leadership is about communicating and setting your people up for success, not forcing them to do things that don’t make sense for them to do. When the communication fails, or when government policies are arbitrary, self-contradictory, discriminatory, or just plain nonsensical (and Gov. Steve Sisolak’s have been all of the above), people start just doing their own thing long before they formally pick a new government. When that happens, government officials who want to keep being government officials will adjust their own reactions to this reality.
I’ve been very, very hard on Gov. Sisolak in this space, and every word of it has been thoroughly earned. He just isn’t super great at his job in a number of ways. But I’ll say this about him — as a political creature, he’s waking up to this reality in ways that his counterpart to the west never will.
The fact that our casinos have been open since June attests to this. If you are a proponent of lockdowns, casinos should be the very last thing to open — they define frivolity, and plenty of states enjoy thriving economies without them. But Man does not live by bread alone — when your goal is not just to stay alive but to actually live, frivolity is serious business. And obviously, so are the profits casinos make, and the taxes and jobs those profits support.
Where and where Mr. Sisolak has continuously failed, it has been to not treat every business, large and small, with the same approach as the politically powerful gaming industry — or better, to let those industries and businesses and their customers make their own informed risks. And so in the wake of these failures, — to the extent they could get away with, did their own thing anyway. If bars weren’t open, might as well get together with friends in our own homes. This is especially true of younger people. Did anyone really expect teenagers and twenty-somethings to not socialize? Businesses adapted as best as they could, many taking risks to stay open or “complying” with state mandates only in the most technical of ways. Where schools were/are closed, parents with the means simply created their own homeschool pods or hired nannies or tutors.
To the surprise of no one, all of this increased social and economic activity is driving cases up (even though death rates are staying relatively flat or falling, which is what we should be focusing on instead). In spite of this, the governor correctly continues to loosen restrictions, even if he isn’t doing it quickly or thoroughly enough. And now, the state government is simply changing our metric benchmarks around reality, instead of trying to force reality into unrealistically set benchmarks.
Make absolutely no mistake – this is politically driven. But that’s OK! If it was purely up to unelected public health officials, like the absurdly myopic and reactionary Kevin Dick of the Washoe County Health District, we’d stay shut down forever, wrapped in plastic bubbles with every type of human contact from handshakes and one-night-stands permanently banned. It turns out it’s a bad thing in the long run when policy decision makers are insulated from the public they’re supposed to be serving.
A great example of this is newly installed UNR President Brian Sandoval’s first major set of decisions – and blunders – shutting down in-person classes for the next several months amid a surge of cases among college age students. Does Mr. Sandoval really think college students will isolate themselves in some sort of stasis pods just because their classes are being held via Zoom? Does he think COVID will simply have disappeared by the end of the semester? How in the hell do you justify even a fraction of the paid tuition? And given the tiny mortality rate among younger people, letting COVID run its course through that population (which it’s going to do anyway sooner or later) is the only way we’re ever going to have any sort of herd immunity. I like and admire Sandoval, but this is really, really stupid. It seems that not being politically beholden to the people he’s supposed to be leading and serving has caused him to lose his head.
We now have the better part of a year of observation on COVID, how dangerous it is (and is not) to specific demographics, and a host of real-world laboratories of different approaches to dealing with the bug.
There are no guarantees in life. Tomorrow is not promised. I came to Disney World knowing that there was a non-zero chance I or a member of my family could get COVID and suffer long term health consequences or even death from it.
But like almost every other American, I chose to live, not merely stay alive. Each family, community, city, and state must be able to balance and manage its various risk tolerances and capacity for rewards. That’s what freedom and self-governance is all about. And so I am happy that Nevada is belatedly steering away from the Hawaii-California model, and more towards Florida. If our governor is not the best planner, communicator, or decision-maker, at least he understands the raw politics enough to be responsive to a population opening up, whether the government is ready for them or not.
After all, in a free society, the people set the priorities, and the government does its best to assist them in leading and carrying out their lives as they individually chose. Next month, I hope the people of Nevada vote to ratify their own God-given rights to live free.
Coda: Last week, just after finishing my column, came the news that President Trump tested positive for COVID. Once again, just after posting a piece, another prominent official tests positive — this time Gov. Sisolak’s COVID czar Caleb Cage. (2020’s news cycle, man...) Tribalists on the left snickered at the news of the president - and please don’t pretend you didn’t - believing it to be just punishment for his insufficient fealty to the rituals of sequestration and face covering (it’s amazing how some people’s interpretation of “science” begins to look an awful lot like a cultish religion). I wonder... would any one of those disease-hearted souls want to say the same about Mr. Cage, or about Gov. Sisolak if anything but dumb luck had prevented Cage from passing it up his chain of command? I certainly hope not.
The bottom line is that you cannot run, cannot hide, and cannot avoid exposing yourself to disease as you go about the business of life. Such is the price of being a merely mortal meat sack. Certainly you can’t hide in a hermetically sealed bubble - real or figurative - if you ever want to accomplish anything meaningful in life.
The lesson of these high profile diagnoses is not that people who get sick “deserve it” because they’re careless. The lesson is that we should keep ourselves clean just as we all were taught as children, and take sensible but not panicked precautions — but we might as well take a couple of laps on Space Mountain while this disease is doing what diseases always and inevitably do.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected]