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We’ve Broken the Public Patience Curve

People will only tolerate lockdowns for so long. By overstepping, some governors have accelerated the inevitable.
Coronavirus protest

We’ve heard a lot lately about breaking the coronavirus curve. Now let’s imagine another graph, this one measuring time gone by on its X axis and public patience with lockdown measures on its Y axis. We can picture the curve stretching upwards through March and early April, as breezy analogies to the common cold fall away and the pandemic’s destructive potential becomes evident. And then we hit the top of the curve. People have been trapped inside for weeks; many have lost their jobs and can do little about it. Patience begins to wane. The curve descends.

Given that I still struggle to calculate the area of a square, I’m not going to claim any kind of mathematical precision here. But the greater point is that patience with coronavirus measures will eventually run out. The COVID is a silent killer, largely invisible to those of us who don’t work in hospitals or at nursing homes, whereas the economic damage is more visible and shared more evenly. The quarantines also run counter to human nature, which demands activity, camaraderie, freedom. And of course, our country has a deep leave-me-alone streak, skeptical of authorities with framed degrees on their walls and protective of individual rights.

Some time last week, that public patience curve appeared to snap. Into the streets spilled protesters, honking car horns and demanding they be allowed to work again. At least 10 states have seen such demonstrations, and while they haven’t been particularly large (one in Maryland reportedly drew only three people, though that was deemed enough to dispatch a news chopper), they do seem a sign of what’s to come. First among them was last week’s protest in Michigan, where Governor Gretchen Whitmer has become a symbol of COVID-era government overreach. Whitmer signed into law some of the most draconian lockdown measures in the country, among them restrictions on lawn mowing and a prohibition against visiting relatives except for caretaking purposes.

The day after the protest in Lansing, Whitmer was defiant:

It wasn’t really about the stay-at-home order at all. It was essentially a political rally, a political statement that flies in the face of all of the science, all of the best practices in the stay-at-home order that was issued. …It was a political rally that is going to endanger people’s lives because this is precisely how COVID-19 spreads.

She’s correct that most of the demonstrators appear to be conservatives and that pro-Trump groups have helped turn them out. Yet there’s another overlay at work here: an awful lot of middle- and working-class Michiganders who have been deeply economically affected by the lockdown—landscapers, fishermen, small business owners, and the like—are also Trump voters. In other words, there’s a class divide in place too, even while acknowledging that plenty of Democrats have also been throttled by the bad economy.

That makes Whitmer’s “damn these right-wingers!” dismissal of the demonstrations sound tin-eared. “Yes, this needs to be taken seriously, but it’s being taken advantage of,” said one Michigander who recently lost his business. “When I’m fighting to (help) a guy who cleans pools or mows lawns, or a women who wants to sell her onion sets or geraniums, I don’t care whether they vote Republican, Democrat, or never vote at all,” said another. That isn’t exactly “build the wall!”

These people see Whitmer as an elite liberal who doesn’t understand how they live their lives, a perception that’s only been reinforced by her reaction to them. And then the economic siege will continue, more businesses will go under, tensions will harden. Snap goes the curve.

Admittedly there’s only so much governors can do to avoid a backlash. We’re in the midst of our greatest public health crisis since the Spanish Flu and quarantine measures are absolutely necessary to abate the contagion. Still, state leaders can help stretch out that curve by avoiding overreach. Prudence and common sense can dictate. This isn’t hard. Whitmer prohibiting the sale of lawn furniture at big stores is a step too far. Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey casually dismissing his constituents’ constitutional freedoms is a step too far. Governor Jay Inslee of Washington banning recreational fishing, as solitary an activity as you’re likely to find, is a step too far. And Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia ramming through half the left-wing agenda under cover of quarantine is guaranteed to leave many of his constituents, er, red-faced.

Now is the time for sensible statesmen who balance the overwhelming mandate for social distancing with the need for a little breathing room. If they choose instead to swing the sledgehammer, they’ll only knock that curve further down.