News Story

Politicians’ Extreme Social Distancing Rhetoric Just Party Deep?

Hyperbolic warnings growing thin in light of increasing experience with epidemic

On June 20, the health director for the city of New Orleans sent out a warning to people who have parties that may violate social distancing rules during the COVID-19 pandemic by, for example, not requiring guests to wear masks.

Dr. Jennifer Avegno said that party hosts should pick out the seven people (out of 100 guests) they are sentencing to death.

“Right now our fatality rate of known cases is stubbornly stuck at 7%,” Avegno wrote in a June 20 press release. “If you are planning a party for 100 people, look around and decide which 7 of them you would be comfortable sentencing to death.”

As the epidemic wears on, government authorities who are frustrated that people are not following their rules sometimes issue statements tinged with hyperbole, as with the New Orleans official. In Michigan it usually involves Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders on social distancing.

While Whitmer has said that her decisions are not politically motivated, some officials’ criticisms of certain social distancing violators appears to be very political.

Which raises questions about the seriousness of some politicians who have been especially strident on the importance of social distancing.

For example, in Royal Oak, City Commissioner Kim Gibbs was accused of not social distancing when she attended an anti-lockdown protest in Lansing in April.

Royal Oak Mayor Michael Fournier asked Gibbs to resign. Fournier is a Democrat and Gibbs is a Republican.

“From what I see you broke the law and willfully violated social distancing measures putting our families and neighbors at risk,” Fournier wrote in an email to Gibbs, according to the Detroit Free Press. “Your actions will prolong quarantine and add to everyone’s economic hardships. Your comments to the press are beyond ignorant and show zero empathy for those on the front lines fighting this virus and those who have succumb to it. None of your spin-doctors will save you from your irresponsible actions and words. I will not be responding to anymore of your nonsense. This is about life and death. ... Your potentially unlawful and reckless actions have put more of our residents at risk of death.”

The life-and-death importance of social distancing seemed to fade, however during the events following George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer.

Instead of warning protesters about the dangers of not social distancing, at least two prominent Michigan officials posted photos of themselves violating social distancing protocols while attending George Floyd demonstrations.

Whitmer, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican, both posted pictures on Facebook of themselves violating social distancing rules at demonstrations.

The extreme rhetoric has also not worn well in the light of recent experience. In the weeks after a statewide stay-at-home executive order in Michigan was lifted, and after widespread anti-police demonstrations occurred with little apparent social distancing, the number of daily new cases has risen. The number of new COVID-19 cases exceeded 50,000 nationally on several days in July, nearly double the number in April, while daily deaths have fallen to a fraction of their earlier levels.