Examining Policy Responses to the Pandemic

Covid infections are back on the rise. Georgia’s seven-day moving average of cases as of last Friday was 17 times higher than in late June, when it hit the lowest point since March 2020.

Mask mandates have returned to some cities and many school districts. Large companies that had targeted Labor Day for their employees to return to the office have postponed their plans. It is only a matter of time before we hear calls to reinstate at least partial shutdowns of the economy.
That would be a mistake.

The Beacon Center of Tennessee, a nonpartisan think tank based in Nashville, just issued a study comparing the economic and public-health effects of shutdown orders in Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky and Michigan. The former two states had some of the least restrictive orders to close businesses and public gatherings; the latter two had some of the more restrictive ones.

The bottom line: “By taking a more surgical approach” to managing the pandemic, “Tennessee and Georgia were able to protect lives and livelihoods, and their economies suffered less and have recovered better – all with no statistical evidence of an increase in (Covid) cases caused by relaxing their restrictions.”
Now for some detail, starting with the four states’ economies.

The length of shutdown orders was significantly different between Tennessee and Georgia on one hand and Kentucky and Michigan on the other. For example: “Bars and restaurants (in Kentucky) were not allowed to reopen to 50% capacity until August 2020, compared to April 27 for Tennessee.”

The results were equally stark. Using federal employment data, the study found Tennessee and Georgia had virtually the same rate of change of employment, each losing just over 6,600 jobs per million residents between March 2020 and April 2021 to rank 11th and 12th nationally, respectively. Kentucky lost jobs at a rate more than three times faster (21,375 per million) and was 35th-best. Michigan’s job-loss rate was more than four times faster (27,412 per million) and ranked 39th.

The difference in unemployment rates was just as stark for three of the states: Tennessee ranked ninth-best, Georgia 15th and Michigan 41st. Kentucky appeared to perform better, at No. 23. But that was deceptive, explained by the “dramatic fall” in its labor force participation rate, one factor in calculating the jobless rate.

While Tennessee’s and Georgia’s labor forces were more than 98% of the way back to their pre-pandemic levels, Michigan’s and Kentucky’s were stuck at 95.6%.

“By allowing more businesses to remain open throughout” the pandemic, the Beacon Center found, “Tennessee’s economy fell by 19% and Georgia’s by only 8% during the peak of the economic shutdowns and restrictions. Meanwhile, Kentucky’s economy contracted by 25% and Michigan’s by a nearly incomprehensible 45% during that time.”

But what about Covid cases? Surely the people of Kentucky and Michigan were physically safer, even if they weren’t as well off financially, right?

Not necessarily. To overcome data-reporting differences among states, the Beacon Center compared “active cases” of Covid during the pandemic. “The virus was clearly cyclical,” it found, “with all states experiencing increases during the late fall and holiday season.”

Tennessee had one of the biggest spikes in the nation in late 2020, but Gov. Bill Lee reinstated only a temporary limit on public gatherings. Despite no new restrictions on businesses, the cases soon fell as sharply as they’d risen.

Meanwhile, both Kentucky and Michigan experienced larger case rates in the late fall and early winter than Georgia did, and Michigan was the only one of the four to experience a spike this spring – despite “continued restrictions such as limitations on restaurant capacity and a 20% capacity for outdoor events.”

And “while Tennessee and Georgia did experience larger waves in the summer of 2020,” the study argued, “this was not tied to their reopenings.”

The current Covid resurgence reminds us that we will never be truly rid of this coronavirus. Variants will continue to circulate for decades, maybe centuries, as with earlier viruses that caused pandemics. We must adapt, including with our policy responses.

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