UPDATE: Douglas County officials will need some new talking points for justifying a split from the Tri-County Health Department.
It’s been almost exactly one year since the first known case of COVID-19 in the United States. Across the country, cities, counties, and states are still dealing with various levels of restrictions put in place to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed with patients.
The process of mass vaccinations is underway, with just shy of 6% of the American population having received at least one dose of the vaccine, but the U.S. economy is still struggling. President Biden is pushing new programs for food assistance and economic recovery, including a $1.9 trillion relief package, but 900,000 more Americans filed for unemployment benefits in the final week of the Trump administration.
With Democrats back in control of Congress and the White House, right-wing Republicans are once again turning their talking points on economic pain into attacks on gubmint interference in the free market. Here’s a recent example from Rep. Ken Buck (R-Greeley) and CU Regent Heidi Ganahl:
“A survey by the Colorado Restaurant Association in November found that 79% of restaurants would consider closing permanently if indoor dining was banned again. Days later, Polis banned indoor dining. But not pot shops.” @heidiganahl https://t.co/4ubIGOl1Ua
— Ken Buck (@BuckForColorado) January 6, 2021
Ah, yes. Governor Jared Polis wants to destroy all restaurants in Colorado! You know, because, um…because he’s a mean liberal politician, or something.
The trouble with this argument, which we’ve been hearing for 9 months from Republicans such as Buck and former State House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, is pretty simple: It’s just not true. As The Washington Post explains, there is a heap of new research showing that economic struggles in the United States are almost solely because consumers are afraid of COVID-19:
But pandemic-related economic research shows the shutdowns aren’t killing jobs; the virus is.
In the first outbreaks last spring, people stayed home to avoid contracting the deadly novel coronavirus, regardless of what their governor said.
Indiana University economists Sumedha Gupta, Kosali Simon and Coady Wing reviewed more than 60 pandemic and social-distancing studies for a review article forthcoming in the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. With the input of those economists and other experts, we’ve reviewed the basic data and some of the strongest research. Four facts emerged from the spring shutdowns.
We’ll save you some time by summarizing the four basic facts that emerged from this plethora of scientific research:
♦ Employment and economic activity declined well before any shutdown orders;
♦ The virus caused a huge drop in economic activity. Shutdowns did not;
♦ When shutdown orders were lifted across the country, economic activity did not increase accordingly;
♦ Jobs data shows little difference in economic changes in blue or red counties.
Take a look at this chart of data compiled by researchers showing when economic activity dropped off a cliff:
The point here isn’t to absolve elected officials from any blame related to the handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The bigger issue is that tossing wrenches at state and local officials for promoting shutdowns isn’t addressing the actual problem facing the economy. Blaming Polis or other elected officials for harming the economy during a pandemic is like yelling at your lawn for not drinking enough water in a drought.
Business collapsed so quickly in mid-March that it’s tough to disentangle correlation and causation. But several high-profile teams of economists, armed with that high-frequency data and sophisticated statistical methods, arrived at similar conclusions…
…Business fell by more than half (53 percent) regardless of whether a place shut down, as people everywhere were trying not to leave their homes. In shutdown areas, activity fell another 7 percent, meaning shutdowns caused less than an eighth of the drop in business.
“If pandemic concern or fear leads both to people staying home and policymakers imposing lockdowns, then the fear is the true driving force,” Syverson said. “Economic declines and lockdowns happen to be correlated because they’re pushed by the same thing, even though one isn’t necessarily causing the other.” [Pols emphasis]
It’s not a complicated formula. It never has been. If you want to get the economy back on track, you must stop the virus first. We know that there are handfuls of people who are willing to eat out at restaurants regardless of the presence of COVID-19, but there aren’t nearly enough customers who will shrug off safety concerns just for a cheeseburger — no matter what the Governor says.
It’s probably too much to hope that Republicans such as Buck and Rep. Lauren “Q*Bert” Boebert (R-Fox News) will stop using these nonsense talking points to attack other elected officials who are doing their best to get both the virus under control and the economy back on track. But we can at least respond definitively that blaming economic problems on COVID-19 safety measures is a false argument.