It’s been a tough year for the U.S. in so many ways. The pandemic has ravaged our national health system and the economy teeters with tens of millions of people still out of work. It has been largely up to the states to contain the spread of the virus as they impose new lockdowns and safety guidelines. However, the idea of closing businesses and forcing people to shelter in place has been controversial to say the least. Americans value their freedom, after all, which is why we’ve seen anti-lockdown protests pop up all over the country.
New statistical analysis reveals these lockdowns may not have been as successful as we might have hoped. In some areas, keeping people at home and shutting down businesses might have only made matters worse.
Do Lockdowns Work?
Donald L. Luskin, owner of the analytics firm TrendMacro, which has been studying the effects of state-wide lockdowns, recently shared his findings in The Wall Street Journal.
To analyze the success of these lockdowns, the company calculated the cumulative number of reported cases of COVID-19 in each state and the District of Columbia as a percentage of the population, based on data from state and local health departments aggregated by the COVID Tracking Project.
They then compared the numbers with the timing, duration, and intensity of local shutdown orders. Some states like New York and California issued sweeping stay-at-home orders at the start of the year after suffering some of the worst outbreaks in the country. Other states like North and South Dakota have yet to issue any such orders.
Of course, just because a state issues a mandate doesn’t mean people are going to abide by the rules.
To supplement their data, the researchers also looked at detailed anonymized cellphone tracking data from Google and others. The University of Maryland’s Transportation Institute termed this data a “Social Distancing Index” to show what people were actually doing at the time of the lockdowns. For example, if the data shows several cell phones in close proximity to each other, it shows the researchers that people were still hanging out in large groups despite local shutdown orders.
In terms of the first part of the year when many states were hitting the brakes when it came to economic activity, there was a clear link between stronger lockdowns and greater spread of the virus. According to the report, “The five places with the harshest lockdowns—the District of Columbia, New York, Michigan, New Jersey and Massachusetts—had the heaviest caseloads.”
As for the second part of the year when many states were looking to reopen their economies in time for summer, researchers found that the states that opened the fastest had the lightest caseloads. The Sunbelt states with the biggest flare-ups during the start of summer, including Arizona, Texas, California, and Florida, still had partial lockdown in place.
What About External Factors?
In theory, keeping people at home should help prevent the spread of the virus, so what are we to make of this new report?
It’s possible that states with the strongest lockdown orders, such as California, Florida, and New York, were already dealing with massive outbreaks, which could help explain why these lockdowns didn’t help stop the spread. However, researchers say that’s not the case. They argue the numbers still hold up even when you remove the worst outbreaks from the data set.
Researchers also claim that variables such as population density, age, race, class, and general health did little to move the needle. The only factor that seemed to have made a discernible difference is the use of public transit.
So, what does all this mean for the fight against COVID-19?
The researchers argue that state-wide lockdowns appear to have little effect on the spread of the virus. Forcing people to stay at home may not help prevent future outbreaks, considering people will find other ways to gather and spread the virus. Likewise, reopening the economy doesn’t seem to be a catalyst for more infections.
This report comes at a time when many governors and local health departments are deciding whether to reimpose lockdowns as infections soar and we get closer to winter. Several cities and states are already issued partial shutdowns to help stop the spread.
However, looking at the data, it’s clear that asking people to stay at home isn’t a magic solution. People can still meet up at home, go to a house party without a mask, and meet up with their elderly loved ones around the holidays regardless of what their governor tells them to do.
Freedom reigns supreme in America, so we’re going to have to spend more time educating individuals and business owners on the dangers of ignoring the latest health and safety information, so they follow the rules voluntarily instead of forcing them to stay at home using a state-wide mandate.