Several States are now reporting record numbers of new cases of the coronavirus. Over 2.5 million cases nationwide are now on record, with over 66,700 in Maryland. It may still be part of the first wave or the beginning of the feared second, but call it what you will, it means that the crisis will be with us for much longer than we hoped. Saying this is unfortunate is an understatement. Many more people will die, suffer pain, and experience economic hardship as a result.
Although it may be a while before a definitive analysis is done that establishes causes for the spike in cases, one obvious explanation is the relaxation of social distancing and the widespread disregard for the CDC’s guidelines for masks, hand-washing and other preventive measures. If all of us were as diligent on these measures as people in several other countries, the pandemic would be much more under control.
Why is the U.S. so ineffective at controlling the virus? Maybe it’s our system of limited government. China has enjoyed great success at stopping the spread of the virus because of its authoritarian government. In China, when the government tells you to stay home, you stay home or ignore the order at your own peril. Here, consequences are minimal. We absolutely don’t want an authoritarian government here (at least most of us don’t), but as far as controlling a pandemic is concerned, it has its advantages.
Disturbingly, too many of us are quite comfortable throwing our masks away, going to crowded beaches, or otherwise abandoning social distancing. This is especially true of the young, many of whom apparently believe that while they may get sick or pass the virus on to others, they themselves are not likely to die. The apparent assumption is that high-risk individuals, such as this writer, need to take responsibility for their own safety. Not only is such an attitude uncivil, it ought to be illegal. We should not have the right to recklessly expose others to a deadly virus. But it gets worse. Some of our community and political leaders actively encourage people to violate CDC guidelines. Among these people are some pastors and, of course, our President.
Did you watch the rallies in Tulsa and Phoenix? I cringed as I saw a young, maskless father frolicking with his infant son before one of the speeches. Where are Child Protective Services when you need them? And should these rallies have been held at all? More than 6,000 people chose to attend in Tulsa. Is it their “right” to throw caution to the winds? It is under current law. And we would be foolish to change that. What should be changed are the consequences for anyone organizing or holding an event likely to create substantial risk to others.
Did you know that before the Tulsa rally, the President’s campaign staff combed through the stands and removed stickers that directed attendees not to sit in every other seat. The stickers read, “Do Not Sit Here, Please!” Because campaign staff removed the stickers, social distancing was largely ignored in the arena, despite there being plenty of space. Was the removal of these stickers, which reflected the obvious intention to discourage social distancing for the purpose of creating the appearance of a full arena, a crime? I say “yes.” View the video for yourself here.
A new statute should be passed that creates criminal penalties for “Reckless Endangerment in a Pandemic.” Such a statute would create safe harbors for events that adopted and enforced the CDC guidelines —things like not only requiring masks but removing anyone from the event who refused to wear one. Events organized or held would by subject to fines or other penalties. Importantly, the structure of this legislation must balance civil liberties with effectively addressing the virus.
Had the “Reckless Endangerment in a Pandemic Act” been the law of the land earlier this month, the Trump campaign would face prosecution. That will strike some readers as unfair, but if hundreds if not thousands of lives would be saved, maybe it’s not. Citizens do not have the right to recklessly endanger other citizens.
This country needs to take this pandemic seriously, or 2021 will be worse than 2020. We need to learn from our mistakes made to date and admit that until we get a vaccine, social distancing and the rest of the CDC guidelines are our best bet for survival. Passing a “Reckless Endangerment in a Pandemic Act” may seem draconian, but it may be necessary.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy.