I Thought It Was All About the “Science”

by James A. Bacon

Governor Ralph Northam likes to say he follows the “science” and the “data” when promulgating rules to fight the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But he admitted yesterday that the latest round of lockdown measures — which included ordering children as young as five to wear masks — was inspired by images in the media.

“I will tell you what really affected me is seeing mobile morgues outside hospitals because there’s no place to put the dead. We don’t need that to happen to Virginia,” he said in his latest press briefing.

As described by the Roanoke Times, he started by talking about the data. But “then he became somewhat emotional,” the newspaper writes, and he said the sight of the mobile morgues prompted him last Friday to impose the latest measures.

Virginia is averaging 1,500 new confirmed cases daily, up from 1,200 the previous peak in May. The percentage of tests yielding COVID-positive results is rising, and hospitalization rates are rising. Those facts are indeed concerning and they suggest that some tightening of the lockdown may be in order. But those numbers tell us nothing about the specific measures enacted.

I’m prepared to accept that restricting gatherings of more than 25 people is supported by the “science,” although as a rational, free-thinking human being, I would appreciate it if the Governor would explain the scientific basis for why 25 — not 10 or 50 0r some other number — is the optimal cut-off point. Also, I’d like to see the data that tells us that serving alcohol at bars past 10 p.m. contributes to the spread of COVID-19 more than alcohol served before 10:00 p.m., and I’d like to know the data showing the beneficial effects of requiring five-year-olds to wear masks.

The measures are not particularly onerous compared to what governors in other states are doing, but can we drop the pretense that we’re following the “science”? Northam has provided no data. And when he confesses that he was moved by media images of mobile morgues outside Virginia, he tells me that he’s flying by the seat of his pants.