A COVID Border Battle

Have shutdowns to slow the spread of the coronavirus done any good? I doubt it. My guess is that in future years–once President Trump is safely out of office–a consensus will emerge that the shutdowns that U.S. governors have imposed, like the governments of a number of European countries, were a disastrous policy error. I think history will conclude that the shutdowns turned a relatively mild epidemic into a relatively mild epidemic plus a catastrophic economic setback, with adverse health consequences that approached, and may even have exceeded, those of the virus.

In the ongoing debate over whether shutdowns have been useful, a comparison of Minnesota and Wisconsin is a valuable data point. These two adjoining states are of comparable population, demographics, history and geography. A Wisconsinite is basically a Minnesotan without the smugness.

On the coronavirus, the states parted company on May 13, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down that state’s “Safer at Home” order. Minnesota, meanwhile, continued under a lockdown, eventually in modified form, to the present day. To an observer, the difference is obvious: Wisconsin is open for business. Minnesotans cross the St. Croix to eat out and hang out in the restaurants and bars on the Wisconsin side of the river. Wisconsin isn’t quite South Dakota, but compared with Minnesota it is a bastion of freedom.

What happened when Wisconsin’s courts lifted that state’s shutdown order? My colleague John Phelan has the story. Liberals associated with Minnesota’s Walz administration predicted a dire body count. Ken Martin is the Chairman of Minnesota’s DFL party, and Steve Sack is the editorial cartoonist for the DFL’s flagship newspaper, the Star Tribune:


Do cartoonists ever issue retractions or apologies? I suppose not. But Martin and Sack couldn’t have been more wrong. John Phelan picks up the story:

Figures from the Minnesota Department of Health and Wisconsin Department of Health Services show that, from May 14th to July 27th, Wisconsin suffered 472 Covid-19 deaths and Minnesota suffered 939, as seen on Figure 1. Again, given the two state’s broadly similar populations – 5.6 million in Minnesota and 5.8 million in Wisconsin – that means a much higher rate of Covid-19 deaths in our state as well as a much higher number. Indeed, between May 14th and July 27th, Wisconsin saw 81 Covid-19 deaths per million residents. In Minnesota, we saw 167 Covid-19 deaths per million residents – a rate 2.1 times higher.

John concludes with a good question: “To what does Mr. Martin attribute our state’s woeful performance?” Martin will never answer that question, of course. But a large part of the answer is that Minnesota’s governor, Tim Walz, is stunningly incompetent. Minnesota’s terrible COVID performance is due mostly to the fact that nearly 80% of its fatalities have been in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Minnesota has discharged infected patients directly into such long term care facilities, a practice that Governor Walz, apparently unwilling to admit error no matter the human cost, continues to this day. (For an in-depth discussion of Minnesota’s COVID disaster, go here, or else read Scott’s multi-part series on Coronavirus In One State.)

Carnage in the nursing homes explains Minnesota’s terrible record compared with its neighbors, but it doesn’t answer the broader question: why, after 2 1/2 months, hasn’t Wisconsin seen the spike in deaths so confidently predicted by liberals when its shutdown ended?

One factor is that for young people, those under 25, COVID is less dangerous than the average seasonal flu. (Details at the link above.) So all those young people congregating in Wisconsin bars might be risking a cold, but they aren’t risking fatality. A state’s overall performance probably depends more than anything else on how well it protects its old people. Wisconsin has done a much better job of this than Minnesota, without restricting the rest of its population to their homes.

In any event, Wisconsin’s experience casts serious doubt on the claim that draconian shutdowns successfully prevent COVID fatalities.

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