Regular readers of this column a) display exceptionally good judgment in how they allocate their weekly reading time, and b) may remember how I mentioned a few weeks ago that the only way to really bugger up Mesa County’s “Five-Star” program for re-opening businesses would be for the state to take it over.
Sure enough, the state got their hands on it and the Frankenstein’s monster they ended up presenting was a twisted and tortured creature that bears only passing semblance to the plan Mesa County generated.
To recap: after being subjected to state-directed shutdowns, Mesa County came up with a novel solution to safely allow local businesses to open up in midst of the pandemic. Basically, if a business employed a few common-sense guidelines — require masks inside, social-distancing measures, liberal use of Lysol, that kind of thing — they could be certified by the county to re-open beyond what state directives allowed.
Administered at the county level, it was a fairly smooth and unencumbered process. Once CDPHE got a hold of it… well, let’s just say that the CDPHE seems to take perverse pride in encumbering things, and they did not disappoint.
The department was evidently unsatisfied with simply assuring businesses complied with accepted epidemiological guidelines, and instead imposed as a condition for certification a list of additional requirements ranging from the merely superfluous and prohibitively expensive — such as requiring enhanced ventilation or installation of HEPA filters — to the creepily Orwellian, such as keeping a log of customers for contact tracing, and posting a sign providing customers a phone number to call to inform on non-compliance.
As fate would have it, the imposition of the Leviathan-version of the Five-Star program became a moot point; right about the time it was to be approved for several Front Range counties, Gov. Jared Polis decided to move most everyone back down to orange on the misery dial, accomplishing the same thing without the hoops.
One suspects that the governor had a pretty good sense that the CDPHE had created a monster out of Mesa County’s benign creation and had no particular desire to unleash it.
Lord knows I’ve been critical of the governor several times during this interminable crisis, but this was a good call on his part. Hospitalizations were stabilizing, and small businesses — restaurants, movie theaters and the like especially — were at, or in many cases beyond, their breaking point. The state-mangled Five-Star requirements would not have helped much.
The backlash the governor received from some of the public health bureaucrats, who were growing quite happily accustomed to their new dictatorial power, was telling. One was quoted as saying: “It appears that if there’s enough pressure from the business and economic forces in the state that we will change the dial to meet those demands and that’s kind of frustrating.”
Well, yes, that’s how things work in the real world, in a liberal western democracy. Public health is (of course) a primary consideration but not an exclusive one, existing in a vacuum. Economic considerations are not mere frivolities to be accounted for only at the margins. The pandemic is not over, but nor do we remain in the early stages of it. We know more, much more, about the virus and, critically, how to treat it. The vaccine, despite distribution issues and persistent Luddite resistance, is getting out there. We will come out the other side of this episode without decimating our population.
So other considerations gain importance as we proceed. There will be long-term economic consequences from the shutdowns, which need not be amplified. And, of course, there will be lingering questions of a legal, moral, and philosophical nature which cut to some of the more basic issues concerning the future of a presumptively self-governing people.
An enduring complaint argues that our still-somewhat decentralized system denied a unified national response to the pandemic. Okay. What character ought that response have taken? New York’s? South Dakota’s? Japan’s?
Nobody likes to admit it, but insofar as no one really had much of a clue about how to handle this thing, a decentralized response was, in all likelihood, a greater blessing than a curse.
That is certainly true within the state. Gov. Polis may not be a convinced disciple of Adam Smith and Milton Friedman, but from time to time he does seem to appreciate, more than the executive agencies, the multipolar nature of the situation, and perhaps even the risks of centripetal annexation of a local government’s good ideas.