Unprecedented, unwarranted restrictions on freedom

This op-ed originally appeared in the Mille Lacs Messenger on May 18, 2020.

The statewide shutdown that Gov. Tim Walz imposed in response to the coronavirus has been an economic and social disaster. Greater Minnesota has borne the brunt, along with small businesses across the state. The order’s draconian restrictions apply equally in Minneapolis and counties such as Roseau, Aitkin and Lac Qui Parle, with one or two cases each.

So far, many Minnesotans have deferred out of fear – a fear created by weeks of frenzied, overblown, “body-count” headlines, government briefings and social media posts that predict a looming Armageddon.

Walz is now dialing his order back, but on May 13, he warned Minnesotans they must be ready to revert to shutdown at any time. He acknowledged the order has wrought devastation: “Many of you are out of work. Businesses are shuttered. Families are struggling to pay rent … The companionship we normally lean on to get through difficult times – coffee with a friend or a laugh with a co-worker – are forced out of reach.”

Here’s a question for the Governor: Why have we had to suffer like this? An objective analysis reveals the shutdown has been a vast over-reaction to the actual threat we face.

Data makes clear that the virus poses a serious threat primarily to the infirm elderly and those with significant underlying medical conditions. In Minnesota, the median age of coronavirus deaths is 83. Eighty percent of deaths involve nursing homes, and the figure rises to 98.8% when people with underlying medical conditions are included. The vast majority of people who contract the virus have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic. For example, in New York City – the American epicenter of the pandemic – the death rate for people ages 18-45 is only 0.01 percent.

Nevertheless, Minnesota policy-makers continue to assert that ordinary, healthy citizens – including in Greater Minnesota – should be terrified of the virus, thereby justifying onerous shutdown restrictions. Walz has pointed to Worthington in Nobles County, the site of the JBS meat-packing plant, as Exhibit A. He has called the situation there “catastrophic,” and implied an outbreak like it could rapidly and unexpectedly occur anywhere.

In fact, the outcome in Worthington should reassure Minnesotans, not provoke fear. All 2,700 employees at JBS were tested. Of the 1,200 who were positive, more than 90% had no symptoms, according to Brad Freking, CEO of New Fashion Pork in nearby Jackson – a veterinarian with 25 years of experience battling viruses. To date, 12 employees have been hospitalized and most have been released, says Freking. One, with underlying health conditions, was critical but is now stable. To date, the county has had two deaths, both involving long-term care facilities.

These outcomes are consistent with data from elsewhere, adds Freking, including the Triumph Foods pork processing plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, where all 2,438 employees were tested. Ninety-six percent of prison inmates tested in four states have been asymptomatic, according to Reuters.

But Minnesota policy-makers aren’t highlighting this good news. “It doesn’t fit their narrative,” Freking explains. “They want shock and awe.” Citizens should “challenge the governor to use his own state’s data in modeling for the rest of Minnesota, instead of data from places like the East Coast, and you’ll see a 180-degree change in his position,” he added.

Unfortunately, policy-makers’ rhetoric continues to fuel exaggerated fear. Remarkably, Walz recently compared Minnesotans protesting the shutdown to World War II-era Londoners who refused to turn off their lights to protect their city from Nazi bombers during the Blitz. The comparison is out of order. Minnesotans have faced unprecedented – and unwarranted – restrictions on their freedoms, and many now want those freedoms back.

Katherine Kersten is a senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment and former columnist for the Star Tribune.