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With Virus Spreading in Homes, U.S. Governors Run Out of Weapons

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 12/3/2020 Elise Young and David R. Baker

(Bloomberg) -- Governors and mayors have cracked down on schools, restaurants, gyms, nursing homes, places of worship and much more. But enforcement is proving almost useless in Americans’ homes, where some leaders insist that hang-out culture is a major source of pandemic risk.

California Governor Gavin Newsom is the latest to try: On Thursday, he declared regional stay-home orders whenever intensive-care unit availability drops below 15%. Earlier this week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered 4 million residents to stay indoors without visitors or face fines and imprisonment. And New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is running ads warning of “living-room spread” -- infection via small gatherings in homes and other private spaces that he says account for 70% of new cases.

That’s hard to confirm, though, in part because contact tracing, an effective public-health tool early in the pandemic, is no longer fully illuminating the path of the disease. Even before Wednesday, when Kentucky reached record cases and deaths, the 1,600-person tracing team was so overwhelmed that officials started asking residents to do the job themselves for lower-risk contacts. In Pennsylvania, only about 25% of people with the virus are cooperating with tracers; New Jersey is only slightly better, with about 30%.

Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious-disease doctor, told ABC News last week that small groups aren’t as prominent a danger as, say, crowded bars. And even proponents of the most extreme distancing -- locking down with one’s housemates -- acknowledge that strong encouragement or even legal orders carry only so much weight against constitutional rights.

“There’s no amount of law enforcement in New Jersey or in any state in America that can effectively get inside everybody’s living room and ensure 100% compliance,” Governor Phil Murphy said Wednesday at a Trenton news conference.

a man and a woman looking at the camera: A Latino Task Force Covid-19 Testing Site As California Reaches Record © Bloomberg A Latino Task Force Covid-19 Testing Site As California Reaches Record

Healthcare workers at a Covid-19 testing site in San Francisco on Nov. 30.

Photographer: David Odisho/Bloomberg

In an era when many Americans consider even mask mandates an affront to liberty, opponents of Covid-19 restrictions have a powerful ally in the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Nov. 25, the justices ruled against Cuomo’s order to restrict the number of worshipers at religious ceremonies. Among the majority was Justice Amy Coney Barrett, whose confirmation in October gave conservatives a 6-to-3 majority on the court. And on Thursday, the court told a federal judge to re-examine assertions that California is infringing on religious rights by banning indoor worship services in most of the state.

“Elected officials are in a very difficult situation, because they know that if they push too hard, it could lead to not just resistance, but possibly unrest,” said Dan Schnur, who teaches political communications at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Southern California. “Their concern about that backlash ends up leading to further outbreaks.”

Looking Foolish

And restriction backers look foolish when they don’t heed their own guidance.

The French Laundry, the Michelin Guide-rated three-star Napa Valley restaurant, proved irresistible to Newsom and San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Democrats who attended group dinners there a day apart last month. Austin Mayor Steve Adler, another Democrat, warned residents to stay home -- from a vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Democratic Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose was chastened when he gathered with relatives even though California officials had begged residents to skip Thanksgivings.

“I understand my obligation as a public official to provide exemplary compliance with public health orders, and certainly not to ignore them,” Liccardo said in a press release. “I commit to do better.”

Party Busters

And there are less initimate gatherings. In New Orleans, a swingers convention became a super-spreader event. In New York, officials have broken up several illicit parties where hundreds of revelers have gathered. In Chicago, authorities in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood broke up a 300-person party on Nov. 29 whose attendees had failed to distance and wear face coverings. The city business affairs and consumer protection department also performed more than 90 investigations over that weekend amid a ban on indoor dining and large gatherings.

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, is considering stay-at-home rules because people who aren’t taking precautions in public “have an outsize effect” on spread, he told reporters Tuesday, a day before Illinois reported a record 238 deaths. “We need people to comply.”

a group of people looking at a train station: Chicago Halts Indoor Dining Once Again © Bloomberg Chicago Halts Indoor Dining Once Again

Customers sit inside an outdoor dining tent of a restaurant in Chicago on Nov. 13.

Photographer: Taylor Glascock/Bloomberg

In Colorado, Democratic Governor Jared Polis on April 27 replaced an early set of restrictions with what he called “Safer at Home” guidance on reopening for retail and personal services, offices and elective surgeries. Still, infection surged: On Oct. 25, two days after the state capped “personal gatherings” at 10 people from two households, Colorado reported more than 2,100 cases, a single-day record. The most recent seven-day average is 4,179 cases.

On Saturday, Polis disclosed on Twitter that he and his partner, Marlon Reis, had tested positive, were isolating at home and “feeling well.”

Keith Baker, a county commissioner in Colorado’s Chaffee County, said policy can do only so much to arrest the rise.

“It really comes down to the public -- like people in a lifeboat, working together, each doing his or her part, keeping each other’s morale and spirits up,” Baker said.

In Pennsylvania, Health Secretary Rachel Levine on Thursday said several counties are approaching intensive-care unit capacity while daily deaths and cases have hit record highs. Modeling projects 22,000 new cases a day this month.

Democratic Governor Tom Wolf has issued an advisory against household gatherings with outsiders.

Rachel Kostelac, a spokeswoman for the health department, said law enforcement officers are authorized to issue warnings or citations to anyone who fails to comply with an updated masking order. In the end, authorities have little choice but to rely on residents.

“In Pennsylvania and nationwide,” Kostelac said, “our biggest tool is for individuals to stay home unless absolutely necessary.”

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