April 30, 2020

With a consensus rapidly building around the business community that America needs to start reopening, and with most Americans eager to get back to work, it is imperative that policymakers across the country start laying out plans designed to safely salvage the economy. While the COVID-19 pandemic upended life as we knew it, these challenges will not be permanent. Government officials on the local, state, and federal levels now need to consider how we can safely return to a semblance of normalcy in the way we live our daily lives.

As the nation debates how to reopen economies and communities, it’s important to remember key principles that ought to guide the complex choices that governors, legislators, and local officials will have to make. While the specifics of “reopening” plans must be made by states, based on their specific circumstances, policymakers should respect these three guidelines across the board:

Principle #1: People have the right to responsibly make choices about their own risks.

Adults have the right to take risks. But during the coronavirus outbreak, there have been many examples of government taking that right out of Americans’ hands. The government does, of course, have a role in preventing people from infecting others. But it serves that role by requiring people to take reasonable precautions—not by forbidding them from taking any action that isn’t completely safe.

Total, permanent bans on alleged risk-taking are not only contrary to principles of individual freedom, but also counterproductive, as individuals are virtually always in a better position than government to weigh the risks and benefits of their actions. Top-down orders from government have been common during this crisis, keeping people from operating freely. But total lockdowns with no clear conclusion fail to inform citizens how to safely go about their lives. People don’t learn to drive safely when they are forbidden to drive; they learn by being informed of the traffic laws and being allowed to go about their business. Similarly, businesses must be allowed to adapt, which they cannot do during this crisis if they are forced to keep their doors locked.

Whatever the wisest strategy for ending lockdowns might be, the decision must be made by empowering individuals and businesses to seek solutions for themselves rather than to make their decisions dependent on the will of political leaders. Most likely, the solutions will include a combination of public health measures—such as requiring masks in public, and limiting the occupancy of public buildings—along with enabling businesses to reopen. But whatever form opening up might take, it must not ignore the ability of individuals to make their own choices about risks.

Principle #2: Freedom of speech must not be curtailed.

A crisis cannot be allowed to justify infringing on the Constitution, particularly First Amendment rights—the coronavirus outbreak included. Too often, First Amendment violations happen because people fear that the spread of what they consider to be misleading information can worsen a crisis. But the reality is that freedom of speech is absolutely essential to informing the public and preventing dangerous misinformation and possibly violence. After all, what one person calls “misinformation” is often just a difference of opinion.

Worse, the effort to stamp out “misinformation” can result in political officials silencing dissent or disagreement, when dissent and disagreement are necessary to keep the public—and public officials—fully informed, so everyone can make better decisions. The best way to handle misinformation is to provide more and better information. Scientific progress especially depends on the free exchange of information. And censorship is likely to anger an already frustrated public and ensure they will be less willing to heed the advice of public health professionals. Censorship in any form must simply not be tolerated.

Principle #3: The factors on which governors make decisions should be objective, quantifiable, and transparent.

As governors consider when and how to retain their emergency stay-at-home orders, they will come under pressure from many stakeholders and members of the public. Such choices should be as transparent as possible and should depend on objective and measurable criteria, rather than on vague or ambiguous language. And determinations of whether those criteria are met should be subject to independent verification.

Equally important, governors should not pick winners and losers during the reopening process. The focus should be on providing clear parameters for businesses to meet while reopening, rather than arbitrarily choosing which businesses are allowed to reopen. It would be unacceptable, for example, for public officials to base economic and social decisions—ones that ought to be predicated on scientific considerations about epidemiology—on matters of their own individual sense or feeling.

On the contrary, public knowledge of the facts is more important than ever. Clear, measurable criteria will allow the public to know whether they are taking adequate precautions or not, whether public safety measures are sufficient or need to be increased, and whether their elected officials are acting responsibly or serving other interests. 

Reopening America in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is a matter of protecting lives and livelihoods. Our leaders must consider the wide-ranging effects of their decisions on our country’s economic and physical health. And make no mistake, economic and physical health are intertwined, and both have taken a beating during this crisis. As we face the challenge of safely reopening our country, we must keep these crucial guidelines at the forefront. If we fail to do so, the havoc wreaked by COVID-19 will only be the beginning.

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