When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, Gov. Roy Cooper and other officials began exercising government power in ways unprecedented in modern times. They shut down businesses, withheld basic public services such as in-person schooling, and ordered healthy, law-abiding citizens not to travel, to visit their loved ones, or even to enter a house of worship (though that last edict didn’t long survive legal challenge).
As a freedom-minded conservative, I did not argue at the time that the governor and his team had no legitimate power to act during emergencies. Infectious disease is one of the few cases in which highly coercive action may be required to protect public health and safety. It represents a rare exception to the rule that private property should be inviolate and that informed consent, not government dictate, is the proper way for people to manage the risks and rewards of life in a civilized society.
Nor did I question motives. As I wrote at the time, a genuine respect for the good intentions and public service of government officials does not require that we accept their edicts without scrutiny or complaint.
Shortly after Cooper issued his first shelter-in-place order in March 2020, my John Locke Foundation colleagues began to scrutinize the available data on the risks posed both by COVID-19 and by government responses to it. Shortly after that, we began to complain that our officials were not weighing these two sets of risks properly and that the governor’s unilateral actions were neither legal nor wise.
State legislators, with Cooper’s acquiescence, fixed the legal problem last year by clarifying that our governors have no inherent power to act during public-health emergencies — that such power is granted by the General Assembly and strictly limited in time and scope.
But were the governor’s restrictions on commerce, travel, and public services wise? That question is still fiercely debated. Cooper and his defenders observe that North Carolina’s COVID death rate, even after adjusting for age and other risk factors, was significantly lower than the death rates of less-restrictive neighbors such as South Carolina and Tennessee. They also point out that while North Carolina was stricter than our neighbors, we opened up more quickly — and thus sustained less damage to our economy and personal liberties — than did such states as New York and California.
Both claims are true. They do not, however, constitute an iron-clad defense of Cooper’s decision, for there were other states that both regulated less than North Carolina and experienced comparable or better COVID outcomes, including Colorado, Wisconsin, Utah, and Florida.
The Paragon Health Institute has just released a careful evaluation of the competing claims. Its authors pulled each state’s scores from an Oxford University index of COVID responses — including business and school closures, restrictions on public gatherings and travel, testing requirements, and mask and vaccine policies — and compared them to measures of risk-adjusted COVID-related deaths, economic growth, and unemployment.
The study found no statistically significant relationship between the stringency of state COVID regulations and death rates. But there was a strongly negative relationship between state stringency and economic performance.
I know it may sound plausible that keeping people away from each other longer would reduce the risk of dying from COVID. But keep in mind that the researchers weren’t comparing two extremes — China-level tyranny on one hand and free-for-alls on the other. No state resembled either extreme. Even in the heavier-regulated states, many people necessarily interacted with each other, legally or illegally. And in lighter-regulated states, people took less-drastic precautions such as protecting the elderly and other vulnerable populations from exposure or, later, getting vaccinated.
During the pandemic, public officials had to make difficult choices under stressful conditions. Many of those choices turned out to be unwise. In particular, North Carolina imposed too many mandates and kept its public schools closed too long. I hope we never have to go through something like this again — but if another pandemic strikes, we must remember this.