Local View Column: Reopening too early would betray science, constitutional law

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Michael Grossman

I believe those protesting stay-at-home orders here in Minnesota and around the country misunderstand both the science and the Constitution regarding COVID-19.

First, the science: Your body develops immunity to a virus only through fighting the infection. Since the coronavirus is a brand-new infectious agent, no one has had the chance to develop immunity. Therefore, we are all vulnerable to it. This is why if left unchecked, almost everyone in the country would get this illness. That was the basis of the early report that up to 2.2 million Americans could die without action to suppress cases (based on the realistic assumption that about 1% of those who contract the disease die from complications). This is far more than the fatalities attributed to flu, car crashes, swimming pool accidents, etc., that protesters (and President Donald Trump) like to compare to COVID-19.

The reason we currently have so apparently few fatalities — 40,000 (as of this writing) is “few” only by comparison — is exactly because we as a country have implemented the very stay-at-home orders protesters are opposing. When they demand reopening the economy before we have the ability to keep people from catching the disease wholesale, they are advocating risking not just a few more fatalities from it but potentially 55 times more deaths. This is a comparison to keep in mind.

Which brings me to the Constitution, specifically the constitutionality of stay-at-home orders. Protesters decry these orders as violations of their “liberty,” contending that staying at home should be an individual choice. However, looking at the science, whether you stay at home or not at this time endangers not only you but me and others as well. Potentially, you raise the fatality count from 40,000 to 2.2 million. This bumps right into well-established limits on individual constitutional rights.

You cannot exercise your constitutional rights in such a way as to directly put others in danger. It’s the basis of the famous Supreme Court ruling that you can’t shout “fire!” in a crowded theater. Nor can you, to take another constitutional right close to the protester’s hearts, blindfold yourself, go onto a crowded street, and shoot your weapon off in random directions, despite the Second Amendment — which is an almost exact parallel to what certainly happens when protesters violate social-distancing and stay-at-home orders imposed by governors. Substitute virus for weapon in the above sentence.


As social policy, it is a false dichotomy to pit the economic harm of fighting this pandemic against the health effects of not fighting it. We can see with the recent closures of meat-packing plants that when this disease runs riot, the economy shuts down. Who amongst us is willing to pay the full cost of this disease unchecked? Who cares so little about their family, neighbors, friends, and coworkers that they would willingly risk their lives?

Of course there are costs, serious costs, to keeping things shut down. Protesters should bend their efforts toward ensuring that we as a society do all we can to mitigate those costs. However, advocating to open up prematurely is not only bad science and bad constitutional law, it’s self-centered and self-defeating as well.

Michael Grossman is a retired Duluth Public Library reference librarian.

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