Rick Santelli and the Dangers of Flouting Covid-19 Facts

On-air fisticuffs between a CNBC anchor, Andrew Ross Sorkin, and a markets commentator for the network, Rick Santelli, has given us another tragicomic Covid-19 moment to ponder.

The pair had differences Friday morning about whether shopping at a big-box retail outlet run by a corporation such as Lowe’s Cos. was just as perilous as dining out amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“There is actually and should be an ongoing debate as to, you know, why a parking lot for a big-box store like by my house is jam-packed — not one parking spot open. Why are those people any safer than a restaurant with plexiglass?” Santelli asked during a discussion of the efficacy of business lockdowns. “I just don’t get it, and I think there’s a million of these questions that could be asked. But I think it’s really sad that when we look at the service sector and all the discussions we’ve had about job losses that that particular dynamic isn’t studied more.”

As Santelli grew progressively agitated about the dangers of errant lockdowns, Sorkin reminded him that the “particular dynamic” around relative public health risks had, indeed, already been studied.

“The difference between a big-box retailer and a restaurant, or frankly even a church, are so different it’s unbelievable,” Sorkin said, as Santelli folded his arms across his chest, pursed his lips and shook his head, like a Little League umpire accused of a bad call.

“I disagree, I disagree,” Santelli countered, his anger rising. “I disagree. You can have your thoughts and I can have mine. I disagree.”

“It’s science. I’m sorry,” Sorkin responded. “It’s science. If you’re wearing a mask, it’s a different story.”

“It’s not science,” Santelli shouted. “Five hundred people in a Lowe’s aren’t any safer than 150 people in a restaurant that holds 600. I don’t believe it. Sorry. Don’t believe it.”

It went on from there, but you get the gist. One side that tries to defend the recommendations of experts such as epidemiologists while the other shouts, essentially, “Don’t tread on me!” is a hallmark of our era.

Everyone has faced a steep learning curve since the onset of the pandemic, but we know some things with certainty — thanks to expertise, experience and tragic losses — about how Covid-19 spreads and how to help stem its expansion. As my colleague Faye Flam has noted, scientists generally agree that the greatest risk for contracting the coronavirus resides anywhere there is close contact, closed spaces and crowds. It follows that avoiding such places or encounters, particularly if talking, shouting, singing, sneezing or coughing are part of the mix, is sensible.

In that context, visiting a Lowe’s is less risky than a restaurant. I’m not sure where Santelli typically dines, but most restaurants don’t hold 600 people. They’re far smaller and more intimate. The dining room of a restaurant with 10 tables serving 40 people might be about 600 to 800 square feet in size. One with 25 tables serving 100 people might be about 1,500 to 2,000 square feet. Even if you scaled up to 600 people, you’d have a dining room that might be about 9,000 to 12,000 square feet. The enclosed space in your average Lowe’s measures about 112,000 square feet.

A bigger space with more ventilation, less close contact and less talking or shouting certainly seems safer than the alternative when considering the risk of contracting Covid-19.

Santelli’s rant also highlights a phenomenon psychologists call “motivated reasoning” or “confirmation bias.” A predilection for cherry-picking facts that conform to your view of the world and ignoring those that don’t is something all of us do (except me, of course).

Political differences and passions supercharge the attractions of motivated reasoning. Santelli straddles motivated reasoning and confirmation bias like a colossus.

In early 2009, he famously helped give the Tea Party movement its label and its raison d’etre after calling for a rebellion against the Obama administration’s plan to provide federal relief to homeowners who couldn’t pay their mortgages. Santelli saw it as an unfair handout to irresponsible debtors and a burden on more disciplined taxpayers. That would have been all well and good, perhaps, except that Santelli skipped similar histrionics months earlier when boatloads of taxpayer dollars were used to bail out Wall Street and large banks for their epic mistakes.

In March, Santelli let it be known on one CNBC broadcast that “maybe we’d be just better off if we gave” Covid-19 “to everybody.” Herd immunity would follow in “a month,” he advised, and the “mortality rate of this probably isn’t going to be any different if we did it that way.” The upside, he suggested, was that we would avoid hurting the economy.

“Listen, I’m not a doctor. I’m not a doctor,” the former securities trader noted, just in case viewers might have been tempted to, I don’t know, follow his advice and run out to their local restaurant and hug strangers. Santelli later apologized on air for his comments, calling it the “dumbest, most ignorant, stupid thing anybody could have ever said.”

Everybody thinks they’re an expert these days. And battling Covid-19 has been made harder by wildly inept and callous federal leadership and by contradictory communications from some public health specialists. Several Democratic leaders recently flouted the very guidance they’ve given their constituents — including enjoying recreational jet-setting and indoor dining at restaurants. Republican politicos, who have made public health transgressions their calling card, have been far more enthusiastic about thumbing their noses at almost every form of coronavirus guidance. President Donald Trump has all the trappings of a one-man superspreader

Flipping off facts in favor of magical thinking or frat boy bravado while thousands die daily gets you folks like Representative Anthony Sabatini, a Florida Republican, who tweeted last week: “CASES!!!!! OMG CASES!!!!! THERE ARE CASES!!! MORE CASES!!!! CASES ARE GOING UP!!!!!!!! CASESESESESESES!!!! CASES WENT UP!!!!! OMG!!!!!! THERES MORE CASES!!!!!!!! CASES!!!!!!!!!!! CASES INCREASED!!! THERE ARE CASES!!!! CASES CASES CASES — WOW CASES WENT UP!!!!!SCARY CASES! WOW.”

Facts will always matter. And in the Covid-19 Era, Santelli’s prescription, “You can have your thoughts and I can have mine,” won’t get us where we need to be — or save us from ourselves.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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