By Marc Stier
For months Republican leaders in Harrisburg have been demanding an early reopening of businesses in the state and have criticized the demand to wear face masks in public. And recently all Republicans and a few Democrats voted to overturn Governor Wolf’s emergency order. Extremists like Representative Russ Diamond and Senator Doug Mastriano have been claiming, with no justification at all, that those orders conflict with our rights as Americans.
The evidence is now in. The policies Republicans, along with a few Democrats, have supported were wrong. Governor Wolf’s actions have saved thousands of lives.
It’s rare that we can do experiments in political and social science to test our ideas. And because we can’t do that—and because people rarely question policies that accord with their self-interest—we have debates that are more about ideology assertion than a rational discussion and weighing of evidence.
But we now have a natural experiment that shows that those of us said that quickly reopening of businesses and discouraging the use of face masks would lead to a renewed spread of the virus were right. The experience of states that have reopened businesses early and seen sharply rising numbers of people infected and deaths shows how important our business closure and stay-at-home policies have been.
States that reopened early and did not mandate the use of facemasks in public, such as Florida, Texas, and Arizona set a record number of COVID-19 cases over the weekend. Medical centers in those three states are on the verge of being overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases. Texas Governor Gregg Abbot, a Republican, has expressed regret about opening bars too soon and has reversed direction on that and other issues.
In the face of a growing crisis and lack of concern or leadership coming from the White House , Republican leaders in these and other states have been pointing to the need to be wary of opening businesses too soon and the importance of wearing facemasks, which was controversial earlier in the year but is now supported by a great deal of evidence of different types. As if to counter both Donald Trump and Russ Diamond who boast about not wearing masks in public, the third ranking US House Republican Liz Cheney tweeted a photo of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney wearing a face mask with the words, “Dick Cheney says WEAR A MASK. #realmenwearmasks.”
Pennsylvania has seen one of the most dramatic declines in both COVID-19 cases and deaths of any state in the country. From a height of 1965 on April 19, the number of new cases dropped to 323 on June 16 although they have risen in recent days to 600 on June 27—something we must be careful to monitor. From a maximum of 554 recorded on May 5, deaths have been falling and none were recorded in the last two days. We will no doubt will continue to see fluctuations in these numbers depending on vagaries in testing and reporting and how well Pennsylvanians adhere to guidelines meant to protect us as businesses reopen. But there is no doubt that the sacrifices we have made to limit the transmission of COVID-19 have had a positive impact.
It is difficult to estimate how many cases and deaths were prevented by the business closure and stay-at-home orders. A recent study found that shutdown orders across the United States prevented 60 million cases of COVID-19. Our 4% rule of thumb for estimating the impact in Pennsylvania of a national trend, would mean that the governor’s health and safety orders prevented 2.4 million cases of COVID-19 in the Commonwealth. (This likely underestimates the actual number because Pennsylvania has the tenth highest caseload in the country, accounting for 5% of all U.S. cases.) If the percentage of people who died as a result of COVID-19 were equal to the national case mortality rate of 5%, another 131,000 Pennsylvanians would have died by now but for the governor’s decisive actions. These estimates do not take into account how many more people would have died because an additional 2.4 million cases overwhelmed the healthcare system of a state that has only 14,395 hospital beds and 1,098 ICU beds.
Sadly, despite the success of the policies put in place under Governor Wolf’s emergency orders, almost 82,000 Pennsylvanians have become infected with the COVID-19 virus and, as of today, 6,579 have died. This is too many. And those numbers were no doubt made worse because the legislative proposals—and in some cases direct encouragement—by Republicans have led some businesses to open in violation of the governor’s orders and their disdain for life-saving masks has discouraged Pennsylvanians from wearing them.
We can be certain now, however, that the impact of COVID-10 would have been much far worse if Governor Wolf had not taken aggressive steps to protect us.
It’s too much to expect an apology from political leaders who blindly follow a political leader who makes up facts to suit his whims. But Republican leaders in Harrisburg will be impossible to take seriously on COVID-19 and other subjects if they don’t acknowledge that the events of the last few weeks have provided clear evidence that they have been, literally, dead wrong on this issue.
Marc Stier is the director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.