Man, That’s the Last Time I Say Something Nice about the Guy!

by James A. Bacon

Serves me right. Just yesterday, I praised Governor Ralph Northam for not panicking in the face of rising COVID-19 cases in Southwest Virginia and slapping arbitrary, economy-stifling restrictions on the entire state.

Today he announced that he is slapping arbitrary, economy-stifling restrictions on the entire state. He is limiting gatherings to a maximum of 25 people, down from 250; expanding the indoor mask mandate to include all individuals five and older; prohibiting the sale of alcohol after 10:00 p.m., and making retail violations of physical-distancing a misdemeanor.

“COVID-19 is surging across the country, and while cases are not rising in Virginia as rapidly as in some other states, I do not intend to wait until they are. We are acting now to prevent this health crisis from getting worse,” Northam said. “Everyone is tired of this pandemic and restrictions on our lives. I’m tired, and I know you are tired too. But as we saw earlier this year, these mitigation measures work.”

Well, we’ll see if they make a difference or not.

The restrictions won’t effect me one bit. I always wear a mask in commercial establishments, don’t dine out much past 8:00 p.m., much less 10:00 p.m., and the Bacon family was already planning on limiting family holiday gatherings to no more than six or seven people. But our situation may be different from that of thousands of other Virginia families.

We keep on hearing that COVID restrictions are all about the “science.” I’d like to know what the “science” tells us about requiring six-year-olds to wear masks. I presume the rule applies to children in schools and after-school care. Children at that age are almost all impervious to the virus and are almost never carriers — and good luck trying to make them wear masks for hours on end.

I’d like to know what the “science” tells us about serving alcohol after 10 p.m. Is Northam worried about slobbering drunks failing to maintain social distance? I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case but, again, show me the data.

What does the “science” tell us about punishing retailers who violate physical distancing, cleaning, and masking guidelines? Intuitively, it makes sense to do all those things. But intuition isn’t always correct. I’m not saying Northam is wrong. I just want to see the evidence that those measures make a difference.

Does anyone in Virginia’s press corps even ask?

The one restriction I am inclined to agree with is cutting the size of gatherings to 25. I’ve always maintained that public policy should focus on preventing super-spreader events. It just makes sense. But I’ve been wrong before. What does the data say?

We do have some data pertaining to that question. The Virginia Department of Health has identified 1,399 COVID-19 outbreaks responsible for 29,930 cases, or about 15% of all cases identified in the state. Forty-five percent have taken place in long-term care facilities, 23% in correctional facilities, and almost nine percent in colleges and universities. Schools and child care combined account for about 2% of all outbreak cases.

The most relevant category, I suppose, is classified as “congregate” settings, which, if I understand correctly, includes businesses and churches. They account for 5,309 cases, or about 2.6% of all confirmed COVID cases. It would be interesting to know the size of the settings where the outbreaks occurred. Surely that’s information that Virginia’s small army of contract tracers have gathered. Have there been any super-spreader events? Anecdotal reporting in the media suggests that there might have been a few. What is the data upon which Northam based his recommendation?

Does anyone in Virginia’s press corps even ask?