Late last month, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven urged people to take responsibility and follow the government’s recommendations, AFP (Agence France-Presse) reports. “Those include working from home if you can, staying home if you feel sick, practice social distancing, and stay home if you belong to a risk group or are over the age of 70.”
Sweden — that paradigm of progressive virtues — has so far refused to close down its schools and businesses and economy in the face of COVID-19. Though it’s considering additional measures, so far its approach has been more measured. The government didn’t say live life as though nothing is happening; instead, it issued voluntary guidelines that focus on limiting the spread of the disease while protecting the most vulnerable populations.
To be sure, Sweden isn’t doing nothing; it’s simply seeking a more balanced approach. Texas cities like Austin should follow this example, and enforce narrowly tailored restrictions specific to the perceived harm.
Agreed, Sweden isn’t Texas, and our public health status here may be different. And so may our lifestyles.
But compare Sweden’s approach to Austin’s sweeping shelter-in-place order issued in late March (Travis, Williamson and Hays counties issued similar orders). Those orders shut down all businesses deemed “nonessential.” This was after Gov. Greg Abbott issued more targeted orders that decreased public circulation, for example by closing schools. Austin’s order went beyond this, leaving hundreds of thousands of Austin residents (and many who commute into the city) out of work. Abbott has since clarified his orders, effectively expanding their reach — and their effect on our economy.
Sweden’s measures are voluntary. In Austin, some residents are treating their order as if it was.
The Austin order is confusing. Grocery stores are open, and fast food workers are considered “essential.” Those make sense. But mattress stores, movers and pool cleaners are also included in the essential list. Construction workers — who mostly work outdoors, and not in large, closely packed groups — were out of work, until the city’s ban on most construction work was overruled by the governor’s orders.
As KVUE reported, “Austin’s mayor said this order is the only way the city can control whether or not the health infrastructure gets overwhelmed.” Yet, with the city’s non-enforcement of its order and broad loopholes and exceptions (such as jogging around Town Lake), the city’s actions speak louder that its words and suggest that city leaders don’t believe the risk is real.
Which is it? Could a more balanced approach, such as Sweden’s, achieve our public health goals while not causing undue suffering among Austin and Central Texas families?
No one is saying Mayor Steve Adler was wrong to take action. But like any exercise of governmental power, such a sweeping pronouncement should be least restrictive between its ends and civil liberties. How do we keep people safe, while doing all we can to ensure they have jobs to go back to when this is over?
And orders should be based upon the latest and best information. We should be ready to revisit public policies that affect us all as we get new data.
Balance requires that Austin’s actions match its words.