On June 19, the mayor of Cottonwood, Arizona, unilaterally ordered city residents to wear face masks in public places. A week later, my family went downtown to grab some lunch at a favorite barbecue joint. The proclamation might as well have never been issued; we were among the very few people wearing masks on the street or in the stores.
The residents of Cottonwood aren't alone; compliance with orders from on-high is losing popularity across the country. One of the COVID-19 pandemic's legacies may well be an overwhelming public fatigue with being told what to do.
Truthfully, Cottonwood Mayor Tim Elinski couldn't have handled the mask order any more poorly. His order came after he lost a vote on the issue—which he admitted after the fact that he had held only because he thought he would win. The end result, then, was predetermined; he just didn't get the cover he'd anticipated from the city council. That annoyed people as much as the mask mandate itself.
It didn't have to be that way. A few days later I watched a woman stop in front of a sign posted in front of the local Safeway. She reached into her purse, pulled out a mask, and then entered the supermarket with her face covered as requested. As I watched, a steady stream of people mostly did the same. Asking nicely proved more effective than government commands at getting people to don masks.
But governments aren't about asking; ordering is what they do. And they're getting a lot of pushback.
Even at the beginning of the pandemic, when fear and uncertainty were at their height, many Americans worried that they would lose more to economic stagnation and social isolation than they gained from society-wide lockdowns. Closing businesses and banning gatherings might slow the spread of disease, but it also chokes off commerce, kills jobs, and sends people to the brink of despair.
"We're trying our best to stay afloat," the owner of a hair salon in Placer County, California, said at the end of April as she prepared to defy the state lockdown. "We had to open the shop because our families are depending on us."
That salon owner was joined by many others across the country who defied rules in order to put food on the table. And they're often willing to forcefully tell authorities where to get off.
"Frustrated small-business owners have turned to heavily armed, militia-style protesters … to serve as reopening security squads" to deter government officials from enforcing closure orders, The New York Times reported in mid-May. Disobedience morphed into open rebellion as people chafed against draconian commands and the resulting dwindling bank accounts.
It isn't only a matter of dollars and cents, either. In New York City, parents sick of confinement at home and unable to legally let their children blow off steam in playgrounds "cut the locks and chains on gates that had kept them closed for months," according to the New York Daily News.
Likewise, Santa Cruz County, California, reopened its beaches last week because people ignored lockdown orders. "It's become impossible for law enforcement to continue to enforce the closures," admitted Santa Cruz's health officer, Gail Newel. "People are not willing to be governed anymore in that regard."
Americans' unwillingness to be governed any further by officials who responded to the pandemic with a series of botched policy initiatives, personal exemptions, and seemingly arbitrary commands to the public is understandable. Why would you take orders from people who seem to have no idea what they're doing and clearly don't intend to follow the rules themselves?
Besides, it's not at all clear that the myriad dictates from authorities helped slow the spread of COVID-19 as promised. That's not to say they were entirely ineffective—experts debate the impact of the orders. But "months of mixed messages have left many exhausted and wondering how much of what they did was worth it," as a report in The New York Times concedes.
That uncertainty comes at a high price. Economic activity in the U.S. is expected to drop by about 8 percent this year, with a decade to come of reduced prosperity. Research suggests that government efforts to offset this economic carnage did little to preserve employment or to help the businesses most affected by people's reactions to the pandemic —both government-mandated and voluntary.
Yes, voluntary! As exemplified by the mask-wearers I saw entering Safeway, people are capable of responding on their own to requests and to personal health concerns. Analysis of cellphone data shows that Americans not only resumed moving around well before lockdown orders were lifted, they had also curtailed their movements before being told to do so. Once again, asking nicely may work better than issuing orders.
Of course, voluntary curtailment of economic and social activity has costs, too. But costs that result from individual decisions are unlikely to spark the resentment and rebellion that we get in response to mandates.
Yet more mandates are what we're getting. With cases of COVID-19 up (though death rates are down), many states are tightening the screws again on economic and social activity. But with growing numbers of people fed up with the frustrations and costs of lockdowns, and pretty much over being told what to do, it's unlikely that we'll see even the incomplete compliance that the pre-fatigue early days of the pandemic brought us.
That's unfortunate, because some measures to combat the pandemic might well be good ideas despite the best efforts of officials to provoke us into defiance with ill-considered commands. Wearing masks, improving hygiene, emphasizing curb-side and delivery services, and increasing social-distancing could help to slow the spread of COVID-19 so that medical facilities aren't overwhelmed, at least until vaccines and better treatments become available. The unmasked shoppers and diners in downtown Cottonwood effectively demonstrated the mayor's impotence, but they may not have done themselves any favors.
But I suspect that the days of widespread compliance with do-it-or-else mandates meant to curb COVID-19 are over. Government officials will have to go against their instincts and learn that, instead of commanding, they have to be satisfied with the results of polite requests.