About an hour and a half before midnight on New Year’s Eve, Chicago police responded to a call at the Congress Plaza Hotel. The crime? Too many people were crowding into a room in violation of Illinois’s COVID-19 orders. Funny enough, it was a government order that forced them into that room to begin with: The state shut down restaurants and bars in response to the pandemic, depriving people of places where they can gather in public.
But now, in an about-face, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is calling on the state to reopen restaurants and bars “as quickly as possible.” Her reason? People are getting together anyway, and since the government can’t effectively regulate what happens behind closed doors, it’s safer to let them gather in the open.
“If we have people and give them an outlet for entertainment in the restaurant space, in the bar space, we have much more of an opportunity in my view to be able to regulate and control that environment,” Lightfoot said. “Let’s bring it out of the shadows. Let’s allow them to have some recreation in restaurants, in bars, where we can actually work with responsible owners and managers to regulate and protect people from COVID-19.”
That makes sense, though it’s unfortunate that Illinoisans have had to suffer under ineffective and harmful orders for so long. The state’s mandates shutting down restaurants proved to be a prime example of the “law of unintended consequences”—forcing people to congregate in cramped and confined spaces where safety measures didn’t apply and couldn’t be enforced. In restaurants, by contrast, business owners can ensure social distancing, require masks, circulate air, and sanitize tables, bathrooms, and other surfaces.
That says nothing of the economic consequences of the shutdown orders, too. Dozens of restaurants in Chicago alone have permanently closed as a result of these restrictions.
Whether ending the lockdowns will lead to an immediate economic resurgence remains to be seen. In late April last year, Georgia relaxed its COVID stay-at-home orders, but the state did not realize a dramatic recovery in its economy. Just today, the state’s fiscal economist reported to lawmakers that Georgia’s labor market “is about as fully recovered as it can be until the pandemic is over.”
Certainly, though, not allowing businesses to reopen prevents them from developing new and innovative ways to function safely in the new environment. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo tweeted last week, “The cost [of closures] is too high. We will have nothing left to open. We must reopen the economy, but we must do it smartly and safely.”
The point is clear: However well intended shutdown orders may be, they also impose significant costs, including dangers to public health. They increase the likelihood that people will engage in riskier behavior in private, and they increase the risk of confrontations with the police—which particularly in today’s tense atmosphere can turn violent—and the possibility of people being put in jail, where COVID infection rates are especially high.
Meanwhile, it still is not clear whether government-imposed COVID lockdowns are even effective at curbing the spread of the disease. States such as California and Michigan—which have adopted some of the most restrictive measures in the country—have seen no real benefit compared to other states that have not imposed such rules.
Hopefully, more elected officials come to the realization, as Mayor Lightfoot did, that lockdowns are not a truly effective mitigation strategy—in fact, they may cause more harm than good.