Like seemingly everything else in America, the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked its fair share of bitter, polarizing debates: over masks, over distancing, over vaccines. Lockdown is no exception. One assumption many Americans seem to make is that the more a government limits gatherings, mandates masks, restricts business activity and advises residents to stay at home, the more economic damage it will do.
Among the loudest of these voices is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who raised his national profile by allowing bars and restaurants to operate at full indoor capacity during America’s horrific holiday surge, then effectively banned mask mandates once Florida started to recover — all in the name of supporting business.
“She’s a lockdown lobbyist,” DeSantis recently said in reference to Democrat Nikki Fried, one of his 2022 gubernatorial opponents. Speaking at a New Smyrna Beach restaurant, DeSantis said Fried “would have had this business shuttered for the whole year. They would be out of business if Fried were governor.”
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Yet for much of the past year, some experts have quietly advanced a counterargument: that economic activity is mainly affected by the rising and falling severity of the pandemic itself — not the relative strictness of the measures implemented lockdown to mitigate it. In fact, these experts argued, nonpharmaceutical interventions, or NPIs — a set of 20 government responses such as business closures, mask mandates and stay-at-home advisories that Oxford University rates according to stringency — can have an economic upside. The more the virus seems to be under control, the more eager people will be to participate in the economy.
Last week, this argument got a boost with the publication of a new report by economists at the University of California, Los Angeles. According to the latest quarterly UCLA Anderson Forecast, not only did big states with more stringent COVID measures end 2020 with fewer infections per capita.