As Americans’ social distancing fatigue grows, authorities must loosen their control

Last weekend, it was 70 degrees and sunny in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Families were out with their strollers, university students played Frisbee, and young couples sat in the sun.

You’d have no idea that on Saturday afternoon, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had warned the people ignoring the stay-at-home-order: “We will shut you down, we will cite you, and if we need to, we will arrest you and we will take you to jail.”

But, in this, Chicago isn’t unique. Across the country, there’s a widening gap between authoritarians like Lightfoot and a citizenry with a growing desire to return to normalcy. If we’re to reach the light at the end of the tunnel without derailing the train, we must aim for some semblance of balance.

Yet, as armed protestors occupy the Michigan capitol and New York police officers violently enforce social distancing rules, the prospect of balance seems to be escaping us.

The protesters have been characterized as racists and the police as fascists, and everyone’s certain that it’s their way or the highway to hell. People are frustrated, scared and disgusted.

Socially distanced crowds are seen at the beach on April 17.

But there need not be a universal solution for when and how to ease social distancing. As Bret Stephens of the New York Times correctly pointed out, the entire nation doesn’t need to operate on the New York City model of pandemic management. With 8 million people living in high density, the lockdown calculus might make sense for New York (although Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Jewish funeral crackdown seems cruel). It’s absurd, however, to expect those policies to be ideal for every square American mile. 

Find answers on the county level

One size doesn’t fit all in crisis management. In the same way that a nursing home has reason to be far more careful than a college campus, different jurisdictions and regions have different demographics, infrastructures, challenges and strengths. What’s good for the city of Chicago is not necessarily what’s best for rural Illinois. 

A potential solution, as emphasized by Libertarian presidential hopeful Justin Amash during an interview with ReasonTV, would be to decentralize authority to communities and counties. Counties are an incredible, underused governmental infrastructure, much more capable of responding carefully to the particular needs of its residents.

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We can’t solve these problems with a club — we need a scalpel, and county-level decentralization might be able to provide such precision. 

But however we go about it, the growing public frustration must be taken seriously. Many citizens are rightly concerned with governmental abuses and job loss. And there’s no amount of celebrity videos or feel-good, God-bless-the-nurses content that can keep frustrations from bubbling over. With more than 20 million Americans unemployed, telling us to just “binge Netflix while we sort everything out” is as much a let them eat cake sentiment as one could imagine. 

Regular people become ‘rebels’

The longer this goes on, and the more paternalistic it gets, the more we’ll see pushback and unrest. The anti-government Michigan protesters are not the wacky outliers that some might wish them to be. Grandfathers, new mothers, college students and many others are protesting “stay-at-home” orders every time they go outside for “non-essential” purposes. 

If restrictions were significantly loosened, it doesn’t mean that anything goes. It’s still a bad idea to throw a house party. But you shouldn’t be thrown in jail for it.

Widespread frustration and “disobedience” can’t be solved by authoritarians cracking skulls for the greater good. This challenge requires the decentralization of authority and de-escalation of violence. Without the former, we cannot hope for the latter. 

Shaun Cammack is a graduate student at the University of Chicago and a contributor to Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter: @shaunjcammack

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