The Trump administration continues to make its hostility towards ongoing social distancing guidelines known. The latest hint came Tuesday, when Attorney General Bill Barr said the Department of Justice may sue states that continue to impose social distancing measures. If he makes good on his threat, it could unnecessarily cost thousands of people their lives.
On Tuesday, Barr appeared on conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt's show. During the interview, Barr claimed that social distancing guidelines infringe upon people's constitutional rights and that stay-at-home orders are "disturbingly close to house arrest." Barr said, "I'm not saying it wasn't justified, but it's very onerous."
"There are very, very burdensome impingements on liberty," Barr also said, "and we adopted them for the limited purpose of slowing the spread. We didn't adopt them as a comprehensive way of dealing with this disease. We are now seeing that these are bending the curve, and we have to come up with more targeted approaches."
The problem with Barr's logic is that the curve flattening does not nean you now abandon social distancing. In fact, it's a sign that these measurements are working and should stay in place. The same day Barr made his comments, over 2,500 Americans died due to coronavirus, bringing the reported U.S. death count over 45,000.
Bloomberg reported that Barr's comments came after a conservative group led by Ed Meese, who served as attorney general under former President Ronald Reagan, urged Barr to address "rampant abuses of constitutional rights".
The Trump administration as whole has not handled the pandemic well. Leaked documents show the outbreak was virtually ignored for two months while it percolated in the U.S., and Trump only reluctantly extended nationwide social distancing to April 30; he originally wanted to guidelines to expire in time for Easter on April 12. Trump has also taken to Twitter to tell his supporters to "liberate" Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia, which are all states with Democratic governors and under varying stay-at-home orders.
Barr's primary concern is the economy. "We have to give businesses more freedom to operate in a way that's reasonably safe," he said. "To the extent that governors don't impinge on either civil rights or on the national commerce — our common market that we have here — then we'll have to address that."
However, suing states who keep their social distancing guidelines could have dangerous consequences, as allowing mass gatherings too soon could cause rampant infection and even lead to a second big outbreak of coronavirus. As leaked federal plans to end social distancing by May say, "This framework recognizes that the reopening will entail a significant risk of resurgence of the virus."
With all 50 states under a disaster declaration, it's unlikely that anyone is prepared to meet the Trump administration's hasty timeline. On Monday, Harvard released a report saying the U.S. needs to be able to conduct 20 million coronavirus tests per day by late July to fully remobilize the economy; currently, testing capacity is about 150,000 per day.
Governors across the U.S. are planning how to address next steps. So far, both coasts and the Midwest have formed their own coalitions. Threatening to sue states for trying to protect lives in the middle of a pandemic is unlikely to help.