Gov. Walz might not get to choose when the shutdown ends, Minnesotans might end it for him

The lockdown is ending, whether Gov. Walz wants it to or not

It is now 53 days since Gov. Walz issued his stay-at-home order (SHO). Originally running to April 10th, on April 8th it was extended to May 4th and on April 30th it was extended again to May 18th.

There have been some pretty noisy protests against all this from those who think the measures unjustly infringe their freedom. President Trump has egged these on, tweeting ‘Liberate Minnesota!‘, while also criticizing Sweden, the poster boy for a low key policy response to Covid-19.

But the question of when the shutdown ends might not be answered by these protesters. It might not even be decided by Gov. Walz. It might be that famous ‘silent majority’ which ends it.

This weekend, John Koetsier wrote for Forbes that:

Apple’s Mobility Trends report shows that traffic in the US and other countries like Germany has pretty much doubled in the past three weeks. It had been down up to 72%. And location data provider Foursquare says that gas and fast food visits are back to pre-COVID-19 levels in the American Midwest.

Rural areas are following the same pattern.

“Gas station traffic has returned to pre-COVID-19 levels in the Midwest, and in rural areas throughout the country,” Foursquare said yesterday in a blog post. “Foot traffic to quick service restaurants (QSRs) has risen over the past several weeks.”

Whether governments, medical professionals, and scientists want it to or not, people seem tired of the shutdown and eager to get back to some semblance of normal life.

On Tuesday, in an article titled ‘Three charts tracking how Minnesotans are – or aren’t – socially distancing‘, the Star Tribune noted that cellphone tracking data:

…reveal Minnesotans are venturing outside their homes for usual activities like significantly less than average, and Google’s metrics show the impact of transit schedule limitations, closed retail stores and changes to work routines.

However, visits into parks for fresh air, exercise and to walk pets during the quarantine have skyrocketed.

Looking at traffic data, the Star Tribune finds that:

Even before the order to stay home took effect by March 28, Minnesotans were already commuting less as employees shifted to working remotely, public events canceled and businesses reduced service or shuttered entirely in response to coronavirus spreading throughout the community.

Since then, traffic levels have started gradually creeping back up.

These figures suggest both that ‘social distancing’ started before the government ordered it and that it is ending without government’s permission.

Monday saw this high profile case:

My own observations (an unscientific sample, admittedly) support the proposition that Minnesotans are paying less and less attention to the Governor’s SHO. Target in both West St. Paul and Woodbury were doing a roaring trade last Saturday, as was an ice cream parlor in Afton where there was no social distancing to be witnessed.

Minnesotans might be giving Gov. Walz good ratings for his actions in surveys, but in their actions they are already ending his lockdown. There is no flag waving or horn honking here. There is simply average Americans deciding to get back to a bit more normal.

People aren’t so easily controlled

Gov. Walz made himself look foolish a while back when he claimed he could control the weather. But controlling people is little easier. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith explained:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

There, in 1759, the limits on government power were highlighted.

Of course, Gov. Walz is not some Soviet style central planner. Some of the rhetoric directed towards him has been risibly hysterical. In my view, he is making an honest attempt to deal with an unprecedented situation, whatever problems I might have with his specific measures.

But he needs to be acutely aware of how much sacrifice people will tolerate before they just start ignoring him. He needs to move – and quickly – towards a situation where “those two principles coincide and act in the same direction”, something like the Scenario 3 measures in the mush discussed model which would extend the SHOs for those especially vulnerable to Covid-19, such as older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions, but would allow other Minnesotans to get back to work observing CDC safe practices, allowing for a substantial reopening of the state’s economy.

With nearly 600,000 Minnesotans unemployed since he issued his SHO, their sacrifice has already been a heavy one. Minnesotans might be reaching their limit.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.