Social Distancing as a Red-Blue Divide

After nearly two months of the economy effectively being shut down, among the most bitter debates today is over when and how to reopen it. As one side sees it, the absence of a vaccine anytime soon makes it grossly irresponsible to let up on the public-health brakes now; the risk of a second wave of the coronavirus is simply too great. Two years ago, marking the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention wrote of the three waves that ultimately hit. Critics of a quick reopening, including many public-health authorities, warn that the economic and personal sacrifices that people have already undergone would be in vain and could well have to be repeated with a quick opening.

The argument on the other side is that the economic damage has been far worse than the virus itself, a sentiment expressed by President Trump way back in March. Others, even invoking the Constitution, argue that not only is their freedom of assembly assailed but also their “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and their freedom of religion.

Attorney General William Barr even weighed in with a two-page memo to U.S. attorneys across the country.

Others say this is governmental overreach and another manifestation of the “nanny state”. In a letter to the Lexington Herald-Leaderone man attacked Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s handling of the crisis, writing, “It is not the governor’s job to keep all Kentuckians from dying of COVID-19, just as it is not his job to keep us from dying of influenza, heart attacks, car accidents, or any other misfortune.”

The debate is fast and furious, with some arguments for opening it up reasonably intelligent and others not so much.

While Democrats and liberals tend to put equity, justice, leveling the playing field, and, in this case, sacrifice for the common good at the top of their lists, Republicans and conservatives often give pride of place to freedom and liberty, opportunity, personal achievement, and accomplishment. One side values the safety net, the other sees the sky as their limit, if only government would get out of the way.

“Where you stand depends upon where you sit,” or so says Miles’s Law, named for Rufus Miles, a career federal official who served under Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. Where someone lives or has lived, their occupation, and their political and ideological views all come into play in where someone comes down on this issue.

In a Safeway I entered last week, a security guard stood by the entrance, ensuring that everyone was wearing a mask. The liquor store across the street had a sign on the door that read: “no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service.” I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened just a few months ago if I had walked into a liquor store wearing a mask.

But that was in the District of Columbia and its nearest suburbs. Last weekend, I took my first excursion more than a few miles away from our Maryland home, and headed about 50 miles west to Warrenton, Virginia, where I stopped at a nice grocery store. I dutifully wore my mask, yet only a quarter and a third of my fellow shoppers were doing the same. From Roanoke, a little farther away, a friend who happens to be a physician and, at least in my view, a fairly liberal Democrat, emailed over the weekend that, “We are doing ok, no one we know has been positive. Most cases here are nursing homes and those workers. But hardly any testing.”

One of our two sons, a Denver-based reporter/producer for a broadcast network, traveled to Montana last week to cover one of the first public schools to reopen. The Willow Creek School with 56 pre-K through high school students, is in a small town with a population of less than 300, about 60 miles west of Bozeman. Some parents opted to keep their kids at home. Classrooms for the youngest had hula hoops on the floor, the better for each kids to “stay in their circle.” A 6-foot foam-rubber swimming-pool noodle in the hallways also served to remind the other students how far to keep apart. Times for lunch and the bell ringing for class changing were staggered to reduce crowding in the halls. In many parts of the country like this one, social distancing from others outside the household is less of an inconvenience or seeming punishment, but rather normal life.

Population estimates for the District of Columbia indicate that there are just over 700,000 people living in the city’s 61 square miles, a population density of just under 12,000 per square mile. Maryland has 627 people per square mile, Virginia just 218. In New York City, our largest and most dense city, ravaged by COVID-19, more than 8 million people are squeezed into its 305 square miles—more than 25,000 per square mile. Conversely 24 states have fewer than 100 people per square mile. In Montana it is just seven.

As Ron Brownstein wrote last month in the Atlantic, it’s not hard to imagine why some of the people in sparsely populated areas might find some policies difficult to understand and accept; their lifestyles are so different than those who live in crowded cities.

A month or two ago, I recall arguing with someone that a patchwork of restrictions in different states and localities made as much sense as a “no peeing” section in a swimming pool. In other words, the coronavirus doesn’t respect borders and boundaries: national, state or local.

Everything would be different if there was a vaccine, or even if we had adequate testing and contact tracing as some other countries have effectively done. We just need to remember that the Upper East Side is different from Willow Grove, Montana. Common sense for those on the other side would be a good idea.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on May 12, 2020