Should the U.S. lock down again to stop the coronavirus?

Mike Bebernes
·Editor
·5 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The United States has seen an unprecedented increase in coronavirus infections over the past several weeks. The nation set a new record for COVID-19 cases on four consecutive days last week, topping out at 184,000 new cases on Friday. Experts predict the situation will only get worse. The number of daily deaths has reached levels not seen since the spring. In response, some states halted reopening plans or established new restrictions to stem the spread of the virus.

The new wave of infections mirrors spikes seen recently in many European countries. A number of those nations — including the United Kingdom, France and Germany — reimposed some of the more comprehensive lockdown measures they used during the early stages of the pandemic, with promising early results.

The severity of the outbreak in the U.S. has raised questions about whether Americans may be due for another round of the strict restrictions that were established in March, which helped tamp down the initial wave of infections but had severe economic consequences.

The U.S. is unlikely to see a nationwide lockdown like the ones recently established in Europe. President Trump has emphatically stated that his administration won’t back one. President-elect Joe Biden prefers a “more nuanced approach” over a widespread shutdown, one of his top coronavirus advisers said. It’s possible, however, that enough individual states would impose restrictions that most Americans end up living under some form of lockdown.

Why there’s debate

Advocates for another wave of lockdowns believe it’s the only way to prevent a public health catastrophe over the course of the winter. Spiking case numbers show that the virus has already spread too widely for more incremental steps to make a major difference, and improved COVID-19 treatments are of no use if hospitals are overwhelmed, they argue. Some also make the case that the short-term economic damage of, say, a six-week lockdown would be far less than the persistent harm caused by letting the virus go unchecked for months, especially if Congress passed another comprehensive relief package.

Opponents of more lockdowns say they would do more harm than good. Millions of Americans still haven’t recovered from the first round of lockdowns. A second wave of business and school closures might mean they never get back on their feet, some argue. There are also doubts that people would follow new restrictive rules. There has been strong, sometimes violent, resistance to virus mitigation policies in the U.S. since the beginning of the pandemic. Polls suggest the public’s willingness to comply with stay-at-home orders has gone down in recent months.

A third group appeals for a middle ground in which the businesses that are most likely to spread the virus are shut down and places that pose a lesser risk stay open. Restaurants and gyms, for example, have been identified as particularly dangerous. There’s cautious optimism that schools, on the other hand, may be more safely kept open.

What’s next

Individual states are likely to continue establishing new restrictions as case numbers proceed to climb across the country. Any significant change in the federal response to the pandemic, such as a possible national mask mandate, probably won’t come until Biden enters office, in January.

Perspectives

Supporters

Lockdowns are harmful, but we have no better options

“Lockdowns remain a crude weapon, but nine months into the pandemic, the move remains the best some nations have.” — Adam Taylor, Washington Post

Failing to control the virus will cause more economic harm than more lockdowns

“The long-term economic impact of an uncontrolled pandemic pales in comparison to the costs of a temporary lockdown.” — Emily Sadecki and Dominic Sisti, Penn Live

Lockdowns would work as part of a larger virus containment strategy

“We need to stop thinking of lockdowns as if they are an end in themselves. A really harsh lockdown — in which people are literally ordered to stay home — pauses transmission long enough for you to launch real tools: rapid accurate testing, rapid contact tracing, isolation of infected people away from their families, and so on. China did that. New Zealand did that. But we never had any of that here. Our ‘national lockdown’ in the spring was a joke.” — Donald G. McNeil Jr., New York Times

Much of the resistance to lockdowns is a result of political fear-mongering

“Some lockdown skeptics make it seem as if proponents favor permanent lockdown until a vaccine comes along, whereas most see lockdowns as a drastic tool to be used over short periods of time — an emergency step, like dropping the control rods into a nuclear reactor about to melt down.” — Mark Buchanan, Bloomberg

Opponents

New lockdowns would cause more harm than good

“The costs of severe lockdowns are horrendous. The U.S. is still recovering from the spring catastrophe when the jobless rate surged in two months to 14.7%, the highest since the Great Depression. Tens of thousands of businesses closed and many will never reopen. The human cost is even worse.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Limited restrictions on the most dangerous businesses is the best strategy

“If you're going to take public health interventions, they have to be very targeted towards specific activities that are actually leading to spread. You only use a lockdown when you have fouled up your response so bad that that's all you have left to do.” — Infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja to CBC

Lockdowns wouldn’t be necessary if enough people wore masks

“The best way to avoid more lockdowns is to mask up.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times

The public is unlikely to follow restrictive new rules

“Another lockdown would be a terrible mistake. In addition to the economic damage and disruption it would cause, it would also bring about enormous resistance. And it would create even more distrust in the government’s pandemic advice.” — Joe Nocera, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

There’s room for a middle ground between lockdown and fully reopening

“The answer is to end lockdowns while adopting measures to protect the vulnerable — I would add, said protections should be a priority, not an afterthought. That’s the sweet middle of this debate.” — Debra J. Saunders, Las Vegas Review-Journal

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images