When to turn the dial

To mask or not to mask. That is the question – here, and at a lot of protests in state capitols across the country.

It’s easy to demonize or ridicule the other side of the mask – those that wear, or those that don’t. But surely, there is common ground. Or, at least, a bit of common understanding to be had.

We come down firmly on the side of prevention. This pandemic is real, its death and destruction are real. And we applaud local and state governments that are doing their best to minimize the carnage, including with emergency preventive measures that would be outlandish in ordinary times.

Even so, we are reminded that those of us who support lockdowns and strong government intervention should acknowledge that there is room for discussion here – that the Constitutional questions are just as real as the virus, and the economic devastation we’re seeing is just as real as the health risks of COVID-19.

As the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial this week, many of those questioning government lockdown rules and social distancing are not science-deniers or anti-government agitators, they’re just desperate Americans who want the opportunity to support their families through honest work. We’re convinced by the data that this disease is virtually certain to disrupt the economy whether the government imposes lockdowns or not. In fact, evidence from the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic indicates that aggressive government intervention and management lessen the long-term economic damage.

Since government intervention almost certainly also spreads out the burden on hospitals and, thus, saves lives, we believe emergency measures make sense, provided they are tied to rational goals and objectives and clearly explained to citizens. But let’s not kid ourselves: limiting movement, and assembly, the right to work or to laze in the park, these are real infringements on liberty.

We are watering dangerous seeds. Just because some of the people complaining about these regulations are paranoid, or are unscrupulous hypocrites and proven liars who would peddle their own children for a buck (yes, we’re talking about you, and your Austin InfoWars show, Alex Jones), doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about how to balance Constitutional freedoms and public health, COVID response and the economy.

In these fevered times, we need clear heads where we can find them. There’s not really much doubt that social distancing will save lives – and probably dollars in the long run. But there’s still a lot we don’t know, and a real conversation about alternatives would be good for the country.

In the meantime, following the rules that are in place makes good sense. So does making sure those rules are imposed, and executed, with as much common sense, empathy and dignity as possible.

As some experts have said, opening up won’t come with the flip of a switch, it’s more likely to be a “dial” than an “on-off” button. We all look forward to the day when good data – and good reasoning – tells us it’s time to turn the knob.

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