The ongoing pandemic requires a strong government response, not platitudes about personal freedoms

Louisiana Capitol Building
Photo by Julie O'Donoghue

Wednesday evening, during a meeting of one of the three state Senate judiciary committees, Rep. Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, made remarks that demonstrated once again that even now — as almost 5,600 people in Louisiana are known to have succumbed to COVID-19 — not enough members of his party are taking the pandemic seriously.

DeVillier was arguing for his bill that would suspend the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control’s authority to enforce emergency crowd-size restrictions in bars. Responding to Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, who said that the novel coronavirus pandemic is not a crisis of our choosing and that “We’ve got to protect the health and safety of the people in the state,” DeVillier said, “Senator, you’re right. We didn’t choose for this virus to come here. We didn’t, but…we do have an ability to allow people to live freely and make their own decisions.”

Referring to a bar owner who’d just told the committee that the restrictions limiting his establishments had left him unable to pay his bills or to meet his child support obligations, DeVillier said, “If they want to go to his bar and take that chance of getting COVID, they can. I don’t choose to live in fear. I just don’t. I believe in God. God is my Savior. And I put my trust in him. Not in man.” 

DeVillier’s argument that individuals should get to decide if they want to follow virus-mitigation efforts is sure to make epidemiologists and public health professionals apoplectic. The argument that commonsense counts as “fear” and that belief in God is a shield against illness and death is likely to have the same effect on theologians — not to mention the many people who’ve watched their loved ones with unimpeachable faith still die of COVID-19. 

We’re eight months into this virus. Nobody should still be making arguments as awful as these, especially not folks who are in a position to shape public policy.

I’m hesitant to go all John Donne on you here, but if it was true in 1624 that “no man is an island, entire of itself;” if it was true that “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” then consider how much more true it is in 2020. 

Many Americans have swallowed whole the myth of rugged individualism, the belief that the needs, wants, desires of the individual are paramount and that subverting those desires for the good of society puts a person somewhere between a hippie and a communist. But there’s no way out of this pandemic if we don’t first acknowledge the fact of our interconnectedness.

And acknowledge that we have laws governing public health for a reason.  Individuals can’t always be trusted to know the healthiest and safest things to do, and even if we do know, we can’t always be trusted to do them. You can subject the public to hours upon hours of crash-test dummy footage, but you’re still going to need to make it a law to wear seatbelts if you want maximum compliance.  If it weren’t against the law to drive drunk, then even more people would be driving drunk — even though there’s no question about how dangerous that is for individual drivers, their passengers and everybody else on the road.

You would think that eight months into this pandemic that we wouldn’t still have lawmakers making the personal freedom argument and that the death of somebody in their district or the cumulative death toll in the state, the country and the world would have made them shift to an appreciation for collective action. But the idea that we should let people do whatever they want to do was pretty much the reason there was a second special session, and that idea was paired with the belief that the pandemic no longer warrants our vigilance.

But consider: On Sept. 28, the day the Louisiana Legislature convened in Baton Rouge for the second special session of the year, the state could confirm that 5,298 people had died in Louisiana of COVID-19. On Thursday, as the session was nearing its final day, the confirmed COVID-19 death tally was 5,593.  During that same period, the number of confirmed cases in the state increased from 165,091 to 178,171.

Every day the Republican-controlled legislature was attacking the governor’s authority to issue emergency orders (and the authority of state agencies to enforce those orders) 545 more Louisianians were getting sick, and a dozen more were dying.

Perhaps we’ve become numb to it all, but it’s important to remember that what we’re observing isn’t normal. We’re still in the middle of a crisis, and as the state’s public health officer said to lawmakers rushing to put up a “Mission Accomplished” sign, not only is our public health crisis not over, we may not have even seen the worst of it yet.

“I predict there’s going to be another spike,” Dr. Jimmy Guidry told lawmakers. And it’s going to be in flu season, and it’s going to be as much, if not more than what we saw in the spring.”

As bad as DeVillier’s arguments were Wednesday, the bar owner he introduced as a witness embodied the economic suffering that has accompanied the sickness and death. “Guys, I’m struggling right now,” Chris Savoie told the committee. “I can’t pay my bills: cable, child support. I can’t pay my car note.” And with the order limiting bar capacity, he said, “I don’t see any end in sight.”

The committee killed DeVillier’s bill — even as members showed empathy to Savoie. “It’s a hard decision, but for me it’s one of life versus economics,” Sen. Joe Bouie, D-New Orleans, said.

Like that one, some of the most problematic bills this session were either killed or edited to make them more acceptable. Lawmakers killed a bill from Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City, that would have prevented hospitals and nursing homes from requiring their employees to be vaccinated. They also killed his bill that would allow churches to hold whatever size worship service they want to hold during a pandemic. A bill from Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, that would have given nursing home residents an unquestioned right to visitors was changed into a more modest measure ordering the state’s health department to create rules regarding visitation.

Bills that would punish municipalities for cutting their police budgets and change the process for emergency election rules were still being negotiated Thursday night but had already had some of their worst elements removed or rewritten. Still in play were measures that would limit the governor’s authority during emergencies or even suspend his authority altogether.

We can pray that good sense prevails and that lawmakers realize that with more than 500 people getting sick everyday and a dozen people dying, we need public health orders that have teeth. Letting people live freely lets the virus run freely, too.