If Social Distancing Makes Sense, California's Statewide Shutdown Doesn't
By David Henderson
Tom Means, a fellow UCLA Ph.D. in economics and a retired economics professor at San Jose State University, made a point to me the other day that seems obvious: California is too diverse a state for the same regulations to apply everywhere.
I take as given that social distancing makes sense. My wife and I started practicing it on or about March 10. In fact, one of my strong regrets (and I think “regrets” is too mild) is that the mayor of San Francisco and the governments of 7 urban counties in Northern California didn’t give social distancing a chance. I had gotten emails from Starbuck’s and from various restaurants about their plans to limit the number of people inside so that people would be at least 6 feet from each other. That was in place for a few days before the SF mayor and the urban county governments made their move. Do I know that it would have worked? No. But do I know that it would have had much less of a destructive effect on people’s economic lives? Yes. So I would have liked to see how much compliance there would have been before these governments took the next step.
But they did and so did the governments of the urban areas in southern California. Together, both northern and southern California urban counties probably account for 90 percent of California’s population. It’s not hard to understand, therefore, how a politician, Governor Newsom, looking at numbers, decided to put all of California under the shelter-in-place order. Government officials usually think that way: they look at the 90 percent, especially when it includes them, and don’t think hard about the 10 percent.
Tom Means made that point to me and passed on a note that he received from a friend of his. I’ve edited it slightly for grammar. Here it is:
Its amazing how many people argue for a lockdown across states or even a country. If you look at the number of cases by county in California, you will see that the largest and probably the denser(?) counties have 90% of the cases. I live in Eldorado County which is a large county ranging from El Dorado Hills (where I live in a 55+ community just next to Sacramento county) and all the way up to South Lake Tahoe, a popular tourist attraction. As of last week, the county had 2 cases, like many other counties. Yesterday it increased to 3 cases, a whopping 50% increase. Nevertheless, many in our city are calling for complete isolation. They cite forecast and simulations of data, exponential growth formulas, that may apply to cities like NY, but clearly don’t apply to most of the counties and cities in California When I ask on our blogs what explains this discrepancy, they cannot answer. When I point out that maybe this dispersion in cases suggests that from a benefit/cost perspective we shouldn’t impose a one size fits all rule, they gasp in fear.
I would add that it’s much easier to socially distance when you live rurally and still go about much of your daily life. I think governments should let them.
The vast majority of people are afraid. I’m one of them. But we shouldn’t let our fear stop us from thinking on the margin.
This site shows a breakdown of cases and deaths by California county.