Does Texas Know Something California Doesn't?

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s a tale of two mega-states — and probably of two Americas, each with a nearly opposite approach to Covid-19 restrictions. The governor of Texas allowed his stay-at-home order to lapse and restaurants, theaters and stores to reopen, along as long as they stay below 25% capacity. Meanwhile, California’s governor ordered a “hard close” of the beaches of Orange County.

The divergence reflects an increasingly fundamental divide between different states’ attitudes toward the public health science about the coronavirus pandemic. Texas is following the most permissive conceivable interpretation of the evidence; California is deploying what is just about the most restrictive possible interpretation.

It isn’t only because of different experiences with the virus. Although California has identified over 55,000 cases, and Texas has only 32,000, California is much larger, with about 10 million more residents.

It is surely not a coincidence that their decision to go different ways reflects partisan differences in attitudes toward the coronavirus. This bodes ill for any sort of coherent or consistent national approach in the weeks and months ahead.

Some ten states, including Texas, eased restrictions on May 1, with some four more scheduled for this week. Just about all of these are red states. Blue states, including many in the hard-hit Northeast, are maintaining restrictions, with some localities actually tightening their rules.

I’m not decrying the choices being made on either side of the continuum. Rational people who are paying attention to different aspects of the still-developing science could potentially favor either the Texas direction or the California one.

The Texas approach is clearly influenced by the idea that if old and immunosuppressed people can be protected, modest social distancing should suffice to keep infections rising to such a rate that hospital facilities are overwhelmed. Although no one knows the virus’s true fatality rate — which varies among different populations, according to different standards of care, and maybe even among different strains of the virus — Texas seems to be operating on the assumption that the ultimate rate will be relatively low.

Even on these assumptions, however, Texas is pushing the envelope for what could be described as a safe pathway. It’s one thing for people to go briefly in and out of mostly empty stores, encountering only shop clerks for short interactions. It’s quite another for Texans to sit in enclosed spaces like movie theaters for hours at a time.

CDC guidance suggests that transmission is most common when there is extended exposure in an enclosed space. And while people might be made to sit apart from each other in movie theaters, they can’t all be physically distant in, say, hair salons.

California’s beach-closing order is based on the concern that people on the beach won’t socially distance and could therefore infect one another. That’s based on a rational interpretation of science suggesting that transmission can occur even outdoors. It also presumably reflects an implicit value judgment that going to the beach is less crucial for human flourishing than, say, other forms of outdoor exercise (which California continues to allow).

Yet it’s also true that there exists a broad scientific consensus that outdoor spaces are much safer than enclosed spaces. Marc Lipstich, of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, a go-to immunologist throughout this crisis, recently wrote with two colleagues that “the science could not be clearer: The benefits of getting outside vastly outweigh the risk of getting infected in a park.”

That logic should apply with equal or greater force to beaches, which usually have more room to avoid close contact than do narrow paths in public parks. Photos of people on beaches appearing to violate social distancing rules don’t prove that beach-goers are more likely to ignore social distancing requirements than park visitors. California is simply choosing a highly restrictive interpretation of the evidence.

The growing divergence between permissive rules in Texas and restrictive ones in California gives other states two models to follow, according to their partisan preferences and cultural worldviews.

Conservatives can embrace their libertarian sides, chafing (perhaps literally) at mask rules and other restrictions as examples of government overreach. Coupled with a partisan desire for the economy to rebound at least somewhat before the November elections, they have a potent combination of incentives to read the evidence very permissively.

Liberals, for their part, can embrace communitarian values of mutual care — while also taking part in a bit of virtue-signaling. The horrified reaction to images of non-socially distanced people on beaches carries a whiff of moral condemnation that goes beyond concern about real-world consequences. And while liberals don’t want the economy to tank any more than conservatives do, I do know a few who will admit privately that they hope any rebound will start after the election, not before.

The attitudes on both sides are not new, of course. The pandemic isn’t creating new divisions; it is reinforcing and exacerbating those that already existed.

What’s new is that Covid-19 is now poised to translate the red-blue divide into a remarkable set of policy differences. As those differences diffuse across more and more states, we may see the emergence of two new normals. And the virus knows neither politics nor borders.

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

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and host of the podcast “Deep Background.” He is a professor of law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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