By: Mark Glennon*
Let’s start with a central claim Governor JB Pritzker made Wednesday in his testimony about COVID-19 policy before the United States House Committee on Homeland Security: “We instituted [his mandate to wear masks] in Illinois on May 1st, one of the first in the nation, and it aligns with our most significant downward shifts in our infection rate,” he said.
That’s simply untrue and his own administration’s data show why. Infections turned down well before his mask order went into effect on May 1. We laid it out in detail in early June.
The evidence of the day-to-day course of the virus closest to being timely is hospitalizations for it, as Pritzker himself has said. Deaths provide another index. However, hospitalizations and deaths lag the actual course of the virus, and that lag time is provided directly by the Center for Disease Control. Adjusting for those lags shows that the virus peaked in Illinois around April 15 or April 18 – before the mask order even went into effect.
Progress from the mask order would not have shown up until mid-May, which is when Pritzker’s “science and data” projected the virus would peak. Those projections are now proved to have been wrong even before they were announced. Our full analysis, using the state’s own numbers and the CDC adjustments, includes the details.
And what about Pritzker’s suggestion for going forward, which made national headlines — a federal mask mandate for the whole nation?
In his testimony Pritzker said, “If there’s one job government has, it’s to respond to a life-threatening emergency. But when the same emergency is crashing down on every state at once, that’s a national emergency, and it requires a national response.”
But remember what he said in April when President Trump and Vice President Pence were roundly rebuked – properly – for claiming that the federal government could override state emergency orders and reopening plans? Pritzker was among the critics. “Well, I think [Trump] is going to issue some advice about it, but it is true that it’s up to the governors to make decisions about the executive orders we put in place,” Pritzker said.
And Pritzker says Trump alone should issue the national mask order, with no legislation. Executive authority for that is highly questionable. On executive power, at least he is consistent. It’s also his position that he can micromanage much of the state through an emergency order he claims can be renewed for as long as he alone chooses.
Watch the video of the rest of his testimony and you will see that the gist of it is that, when the federal government failed, it was his administration that stepped up with the right response, which is how much of the press summarized his testimony. When asked later to elaborate on what lessons Illinois officials gained from handling the pandemic, Pritzker offered no specifics, saying only, “There’s an awful lot of learning that’s taken place from March until now, so yes I think we’ve created a path for someone in the future to follow.”
His leadership showed the country how to do it, in other words.
But here’s what Pritzker didn’t tell Congress: Illinois has suffered 42% more deaths per capita than America as a whole. Per 100,000 of population, 58 Illinoisans have died from the virus but just 41, nationally. Yes, the virus is spiking in states like Florida, Texas and Arizona, but their deaths per capita remain far behind Illinois’ at 19, 10 and 28, respectively, per 100,000.
Given that record so far, nobody should be telling Congress that Illinois provides the model for others to follow.
Another matter Pritzker omitted is the growing question of whether lockdown orders make a difference at all. As we have often written, many experts have found it hard to match state and national success fighting the virus with current or prior emergency rules; the virus seems to have a life of its own, often surprising the experts.
A good, current illustration is California, which is also among the states where the virus is surging, though it has had strict lockdown rules.
The latest evidence on that issue is particularly intriguing. It’s a study authored by two University of Chicago economists, one of whom is Austan Goolsby, who served on the Council of Economic Advisors during the Obama Administration.
They concluded that it’s individual choice that determines how people have conducted themselves during the pandemic, not rules. Legal shutdown orders account for only 7 percentage points of what was a 60 percentage points drop in consumer traffic due to the virus, they found.
That conclusion is consistent with another recent study in Wisconsin that we wrote about. It found virtually no change in social distancing behavior after the Wisconsin Supreme Court voided the state’s shutdown order on May 13.
The truth is that the verdict is still out on much of what works, and Illinois is certainly not in a position to be telling Congress that it knows. What we can say for certain is that the entire nation at all levels of government – as well as most educational institutions and many businesses — were tragically unprepared. That failure most clearly includes the absence of any planning for what levels of government are responsible for what – the very issue on which Pritzker plays both sides.
Let’s hope that, when this is over, a quality review is undertaken that produces a useful assessment akin to the 911 Commission’s report. Hopefully, it will be free of self-aggrandizing politicians who have plagued the debate so far.
*Mark Glennon is founder of Wirepoints.