At a press conference this past weekend, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot issued a stern warning to those gathering for social events in the city: “"We will take you to jail, period."
On the same weekend, California governor Gavin Newsom’s administration posted a list online of “approved outdoor activities,” letting people know they could still watch the sunset and play catch.
The nation has seen varied responses to the Coronavirus crisis, and some local and state governments have steam-rolled over liberties and constitutional rights without batting an eye.
Americans enjoy an exceptional standard of life because our government is bound by the limits set forth in our Constitution. These limits make American government different from most other governments around the globe.
These limits, unique in the oppressive history of despots and monarchies that mankind has endured, should be precious to us. They should be reinforced at every opportunity as if we stand to lose them – because we do. And there is no time more important to keep these unique limits on government in the forefront of national dialogue than in times of crisis.
Crisis can make us all collectively lose our minds a little. We are all rightly focused on staying safe and protecting the wellbeing of the most vulnerable in our communities from the Coronavirus. In many ways, we are distracted from the decisionmaking going on by the governments that serve us. We want to trust the government to keep us safe. But can the government keep us safe from itself?
Only we can ensure the government is sticking to its limits.
Some of the government closures and public health and safety initiatives have been helpful in keeping people safe and preventing the virus from spreading. But some orders have been just plain absurd overreach. “The Coronavirus Is Exposing Little Tyrants All Over the Country,” writes John Daniel Davidson in the Federalist. He points to examples of a rider being yanked off of a Philadelphia bus for not wearing a mask and lone beach joggers being chased down by police. He’s right.
Bill de Blasio and the New York State Legislature are grappling with the immense responsibility of navigating New York through this pandemic. There have been plenty of helpful state and city actions. Yet their efforts are getting more intense and more invasive. Both the mayor and the legislature have floated rent freezes in the press—which would amount to depriving property owners of rental payments that they are owed. de Blasio has also been calling for the “nationalization” of certain industries. This means the government taking over a privately held factory or production line—an unprecedented action that is unconscionable to our rights as citizens to keep the things we own.
Not to be outdone by other states, New York politicians overreached all the way into the realm of life and death. Hauntingly, New York issued new guidelines for paramedics not to try to resuscitate cardiac patients at the scene of an emergency because of the COVID crisis.
This is alarming. You pay taxes expecting emergency medical services to save your life, and yet the state government says they’ve decided against that.
In Kentucky, a handful of mayors together with Governor Andy Beshar became extraordinarily focused on preventing Easter services from taking place physically, even if it means congregants gathered in their own cars in a parking lot. Churchgoers in the state were met with police, citations, threats of forced quarantine, and boxes of nails spread on the ground at the entrances to parking lots to try to stop them.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has decided that her state would regulate the specific items in each store that are considered essential and non-essential, barring the public from buying anything her administration doesn’t consider important. Later, she went a step further and banned all gatherings of people, regardless of size, in personal places. Her order reads, “"[A]ll public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring among persons not part of a single household are prohibited.”
Governments have to act to keep people safe. But where are the nuances? Why are sparsely populated rural portions of a state under the same strict requirements as dense cities? Nursing homes and hospitals need far more regulatory attention than a roadside café or a neighborhood park. Where is the nuance? More importantly, where are the stopping points?
These are times of crisis. Certain extra precautions are warranted. But these cases I have listed above are examples of state and local governments going too far. The government must have limits, even in times of crisis. Now more than ever, the nation should be focused on collectively identifying where those boundaries should be firm. If we don’t pay attention, and if we don’t insist on our government keeping their own limits at the forefront of every policy decision made, overreaches can become routine – or irreversible.
Crises are a time for national conversations about the limits of government.
Bryan Griffin of the London Center for Policy Research is a lawyer and author who specializes in American policy in the Middle East.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.