Even before Idaho Gov. Brad Little issued a statewide stay-at-home order to help control the spread of the coronavirus, he had a long-term outcome in mind.
In a March 17 op-ed — written just days after Idaho recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19 — Little noted that the situation with coronavirus “is changing hourly, and history will remember our reaction to it.”
“I want history to remember that Idahoans were there for each other during this very challenging and uncertain time,” he continued. “Let’s be mindful of our neighbors and thoughtful of our actions. … Let’s make sure future generations use (this) as a model for calm and compassion in a time of uncertainty.”
And to date, his wish has come true: People have been willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Despite a handful of protests and public complaints over the past 10 weeks, there’s been widespread acceptance of the emergency restrictions Idaho and other states put into place, a sense of solidarity in the face of a communal threat.
“I’m proud to stand here today as an Idahoan,” Little said on May 14, while announcing that the state was moving to Phase 2 of his four-phase plan to reopen the economy. “My fellow citizens have done a tremendous job in caring for their neighbors and in doing their best to slow the spread of the virus.”
But as he so often reminds people, the story isn’t over yet: The pandemic continues to run its course. In the United States alone, more than 150,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported just in the past week, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with more than 8,000 fatalities.
Since February, more than 90,000 Americans have died — nearly the death toll of the Vietnam and Korean wars combined. Many public health experts also predict a resurgence of the virus in the coming months, driven in part by the loosening of economic restrictions and increased social interactions.
So if that happens and renewed restrictions are called for, how will people react? Will compassion and solidarity prevail, as Little hopes, or will the next chapter of the coronavirus story be every man for himself?
Renegotiating the social compact
Brian Wolf, chairman of the University of Idaho’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, thinks social pressure could be the biggest factor in how the public responds.
Wolf noted it took years, even decades, for people to accept seat belt or motorcycle helmet laws. Despite evidence the devices help save lives and minimize injuries, there was a great deal of initial resistance. But then social norms gradually shifted.
“Now we’ve accepted those restrictions,” Wolf said. “Nobody’s marching on the capitol steps saying seat belt laws are oppressive.”
The difference with COVID-19 is that it involves restrictions at a level that hasn’t been seen since the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918.
“We’re talking about norms nobody has ever seen before,” Wolf said. “It’s clearly highlighting fissures in society — and that’s more pronounced out West. Part of the ethos of the West is that we just don’t want the government telling us what to do.”
Efforts to control the coronavirus garnered a high degree of public acceptance at first, with perhaps “a degree of solidarity not seen since World War II,” he said. “There’s a sense we’re all in it together, not so much to save ourselves, but to save our neighbors.”
As the pandemic lingered, however, pain from the economic restrictions increased and solidarity began to fray at the edges. Some businesses opened despite the restrictions, and there’s been more vocal criticism of the way the federal and state governments are handling the crisis.
Going forward, Wolf said, government and public health officials may have less influence over controlling the coronavirus than the public itself does, through its acceptance or rejection of restrictions.
“If there’s a resurgence, I don’t think we’ll see the same level of compliance (with mandatory restrictions),” he said. “There might be a renegotiation of the social compact. People may say the government can tell them to wear a mask in public, but it can’t close the churches or bars.”
Nicholas Lovrich, an emeritus professor at Washington State University, thinks faith in science — or lack of faith — will play a role as well.
By its very nature, Lovrich said, scientific investigation involves uncertainty. That’s particularly true when dealing with something completely new, such as a contagious disease that didn’t exist six months ago.
“When you have a situation that’s new, science becomes less sure and more subject to question,” he said.
In that regard, the coronavirus pandemic may serve as a giant social experiment in how tolerant people are of scientific uncertainty.
Ever since the virus first appeared, officials have been playing catch-up, trying to determine everything from how it’s spread to how contagious and deadly it is.
Nearly three months after the outbreak was declared a pandemic, some people now think the initial threat was overstated and that the disease isn’t any more problematic than the flu. Consequently, they’re less likely to take public health recommendations seriously and more likely to chafe against economic restrictions.
Those attitudes mirror pre-existing views about science, Lovrich said. Cellphone location data, for example, shows less compliance with social distancing recommendations in areas where people don’t believe climate change is a threat.
“We’re in a period of declining trust in government and science, and that’s a dangerous place to be,” he said. “I think it’s going to be really hard this fall (to prevent a resurgence of the virus).”
Lovrich noted that public health restrictions imposed during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic were often eased or ignored after the first wave of cases swept through a region. That led to a second, even deadlier round of infections.
“I don’t know that we’re going to be able to escape repeating history,” he said.
Changing attitudes about the coronavirus also reflect the way political polarization occurs in this country.
Cornell Clayton, director of WSU’s Foley Institute for Public Policy, said what’s driving populism on both the left and the right is the growing class divide between people with higher education levels and professional jobs and those in lower-skilled jobs who “have really taken the brunt of the changes in the new economy.”
“The response to the pandemic has laid that division even more bare,” Clayton said.
A stay-at-home order, for example, has less economic impact on a stock analyst (or reporter) who can continue to work from home than it does on a cab driver or retail clerk, which plays into attitudes toward the government restrictions.
“As the economy shut down, people’s financial situation worsened and became more worrisome,” Clayton said. “At the same time, the impact of the virus wasn’t as great as initially feared. In that context, it’s easier to be receptive to the cues coming from partisan leaders and the partisan media, or to conspiracy theories.”
President Donald Trump, for example, criticized the pace at which Democratic governors reopened their economies, while largely ignoring similar behavior by Republican governors.
“Clearly the issue is becoming more polarized as the White House changes its communications strategy,” Clayton said. “And we already know most people come to their political attitudes based on cues from the political elite. It’s no different than climate change: Republicans and Democrats understand the science equally well, but take different positions as a result of cues from party leaders.”
How this plays out going forward may depend on the nature of any resurgence, he said. If the pandemic goes along as it has, resistance to restrictions could increase. But if the virus “comes back with a vengeance,” then people may admit officials were right in being cautious.
“It’s a question of what level of risk we confront,” Clayton said.
Apples and oranges
Former Pullman City Councilor Francis Benjamin suggested clear communication regarding the goal of a state’s coronavirus strategy could improve public solidarity in the event of a resurgence.
Benjamin, who works in WSU’s psychology department, has been conducting research for the past several years regarding civility levels in state legislatures. He’s working with Lovrich and 14 other researchers from across the country, trying to identify what factors contribute to good working relationships and determine how those relationships influence the way states respond to emergencies.
More recently, they’ve started using the pandemic as a test case for how governors and legislatures respond under duress.
The work is in its initial stages, Benjamin said, but reactions to the coronavirus seem to fall into four basic categories.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, for example, has pursued a “public health” model that focuses on minimizing or eliminating COVID-19 cases altogether. Other states, such as Idaho, emphasize “flattening the curve,” so that cases are spread out to avoid over-burdening the health care system.
Another “pragmatic physician” approach recognizes there are limits to what people will do. Rather than promote strict isolation or social distancing practices that would really cut down on coronavirus cases, these states may choose less rigid restrictions that people are more likely to accept.
A fourth group of states take into consideration the economic impact of any restrictions and try to balance that against the public safety concerns.
Without a national strategy in fighting the coronavirus, Benjamin said, states are left with whichever approach their governor and/or legislature deem best.
As a result, people end up making “apples-to-oranges” comparisons. They wonder why one industry in Washington is deemed nonessential, while the same industry in Idaho can continue to operate. Absent any discussion of the states’ differing goals, that simply heightens public frustration and dissatisfaction.
“If everyone were under the same restrictions, I think there would be more acceptance,” Benjamin said. “But as soon as people see inequities, there will be less adherence.”
Which model is best from a public health standpoint likely won’t be known for years, he said. In the meantime, critics can use the differing standards to suggest governments don’t know what they’re doing.
“If there is a resurgence in the virus, I feel like the biggest key to success has to do with trust in government and public officials,” Benjamin said. “If trust is lost, all bets are off. People will do what they think is best for themselves, without considering the impact on society as a whole.”
As has been the case in Idaho, state lawmakers are often the most vocal critics of government restrictions, thereby adding to the public distrust.
On the other hand, legislative bodies have largely been cut out of any decision-making role in how to respond to the virus. Governors may have consulted with lawmakers, but they’ve mostly mandated the stay-at-home restrictions and reopening strategies on their own authority.
That doesn’t sit well with lawmakers, who are the elected representatives of the people and take that responsibility seriously.
Genesee Rep. Caroline Troy, for example, has been impressed with the steps Gov. Little has taken to this point — but if renewed restrictions are needed this fall, she absolutely wants the Legislature called back for a special session.
“I think the governor and his team have done a fantastic job with the information they had available,” Troy said. “And it’s really easy to sit back and be an armchair quarterback. I’m trying hard not to do that, but we are a representative government.”
Whether a special session is convened or not, Troy thinks lawmakers might revise the governor’s emergency powers during the 2021 session.
“I think Idaho law is set up to appropriately respond to a crisis,” she said. “But in the past, any crisis has been short-lived. It’s been an earthquake or a storm that swept through and was gone. (The governor’s) emergency authority was never envisioned for a pandemic that requires an ongoing response. And I get anxious when we spend $1.25 billion (in federal emergency relief funds) with limited legislative oversight.”
Lewiston Sen. Dan Johnson thinks there will also be conversations next year about the Legislature’s ability to call itself back into session — something that would require a constitutional amendment.
“If legislators had the authority to call ourselves back into order, we would already have done it,” Johnson said. “That’s not an attack on the governor or on public health. It just has to do with our responsibility as a Legislature.”
Like Troy, Johnson had business owners contact him weeks before the governor issued his March 25 stay-at-home order, explaining the safety procedures they’d voluntarily put into place to protect customers and employees.
“That showed me they were being proactive,” he said.
Consequently, rather than rely on mandatory restrictions, Johnson thinks any resurgence of the virus could be addressed with a combination of public health recommendations and private sector ingenuity.
“I haven’t talked to any businesses who disagree with social distancing,” he said. “I don’t think they’re averse (to guidelines). They just want to know what the ground rules are, so they can plan and move forward.”
Ultimately, when it comes to controlling and responding to the coronavirus, Johnson puts his faith in those same Idaho citizens whom the governor praises every chance he gets.
“I believe the public is going to make good choices,” he said.
Spence may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 791-9168.