News from the opinion page

The Wall Street Journal:

‘We’re the Wild West.” That’s what Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers said on May 13, after the state Supreme Court threw out a stay-at-home order issued by his administration. The result, Mr. Evers added, would be “chaos” during a pandemic: “We’re going to have more deaths, and it’s a sad occasion for the state.”

That isn’t what happened, at least according to a study published this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research. After some statistical analysis, five academic researchers find “no evidence” that the sudden lifting of Wisconsin’s order “impacted social distancing, COVID-19 cases, or COVID-19-related mortality” during the 14 days that followed.

The authors first looked at anonymized smartphone data from May 3 to May 24, which shows little change in Wisconsin residents’ behavior. Then they crunched the numbers on Covid-19 cases and deaths, as tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These analyses “fail to detect any evidence that the Wisconsin Supreme Court order affected COVID-19 health.”

Why the null result? It isn’t that Wisconsin’s initial stay-at-home order was ineffective. The authors say the state’s action came “relatively early during its outbreak cycle” and “significantly flattened the growth curve.” Once the Supreme Court invalidated it, five counties put in place extended local lockdowns. But “accounting for these county policies does not change our main finding.”

So what gives? The authors suggest that perhaps most of Wisconsin’s 5.8 million people simply decided to act responsibly of their own accord. Stay-at-home orders might be first enacted “during a time where people perceived little risk and knew little about proper protective behavior.” But by the time such orders are rescinded, residents “have had a chance to adjust.”

The authors conclude that their results “cast doubt on the assertion that reopening states” will “necessarily cause substantial erosion in the containment of the virus.” Restoring the people’s right to go to the local garden store or salon “does not mean that individuals will exercise that right, and does not mean that if they do, that they will not do so responsibly.”

Hear, hear. In April, when Georgia Governor Brian Kemp eased his lockdown order, a headline writer at the Atlantic dubbed it an “Experiment in Human Sacrifice.” By that logic, nobody would leave the house until assured that a coronavirus vaccine with millions of doses was already being distributed. Political leaders need to trust Americans to follow health guidelines and get on with their lives.


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