A comparison of Texas and California suggests that legal edicts matter less than The New York Times thinks.
And it is odd that the Times wishes Trump had taken complete control of the situation, given his resistance to the sweeping social and economic restrictions that the Times favors. Any “unified national strategy” imposed by Trump almost certainly would have entailed overriding the lockdowns imposed by states such as California and New York, which the Times credits with saving many lives.
It’s not clear the Times is right about that. Quoting Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious disease expert at Columbia, it says “the rush to reopen” was “the opportune moment that was lost.” If so, states that imposed lockdowns early, lifted them gradually, and quickly re-imposed restrictions in response to surges in cases and deaths should have fared better than less cautious states. But a comparison of Texas and California, the two most populous states, does not provide much evidence to support that hypothesis.
Contact tracing data from New York indicate that “household/social gatherings” accounted for three-quarters of infections in that state this fall. Mobility data show that Americans sharply curtailed their public activities last spring before most states had imposed lockdowns and began moving around more before those lockdowns were lifted. The pattern in both Texas and California was similar to the nationwide trends, notwithstanding their markedly different policies. In both states, mobility peaked in the fall and has declined since then. These data suggest that government policy does not play as important a role in the behavior that drives virus transmission as the Times seems to think.
In a National Bureau of Economic Research paper published last August, UCLA economist Andrew Atkeson and two other researchers, after looking at COVID-19 trends in 23 countries and 25 U.S. states that had seen more than 1,000 deaths from the disease by late July, found little evidence that variations in policy explain the course of the epidemic in different places. Other analyses have reached different conclusions.
Do the benefits of lockdowns outweigh their costs? That question is crucial not just in setting current policy but also in deciding how to deal with future epidemics. Without the “fractured” approach that the Times decries, it would be a lot harder to answer.