California's Regional Stay-At-Home Order Was a Costly Failure

By the state’s own estimates, a two-month lockdown was less effective than a slow day of vaccinations.


The numbers are in on California's two-month regional stay-at-home order that banned outdoor dining, closed nail salons, and forbade people from socializing with others outside their household. By the state's own estimates, the policy should be considered a costly failure.

The state's second regional stay-at-home order was issued on December 3 by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. It divided California into five new regions and then imposed a range of new restrictions on businesses and social activity whenever spare intensive care unit (ICU) capacity fell below 15 percent.

The order provoked extreme controversy. Businesses argued a second lockdown would bring about their doom. Law enforcement agencies across the state said they wouldn't enforce it. Several judges ruled the ban on outdoor dining was unsupported by evidence that it would slow the spread of COVID-19.

Newsom, claiming that projections showed ICU capacity would be above 15 percent within a month, issued a surprise retraction of the order at the end of January. More cynical observers, including supporters of the order, argued the governor was bowing to political pressure.

One week after its end, the Los Angeles Times reports that state officials are estimating that the stay-at-home order prevented some 25,000 people from being hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide, with the outdoor dining ban, in particular, being singled out as one main reason why.

The Times notes, as do some of the experts it quotes, that it's much too early to have real data on the efficacy of an outdoor dining ban, but the inherent nature of eating at a restaurant—where masking is impossible and social distancing difficult—means it must have made a difference.

"A lot of people said, 'You're closing this down, but there's no proof.' Well, it's not that there's no proof. It's just not the proof that people want to see," said California's Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly to the Times. "You have an environment where you take off your mask, and you sit close to people for a long period of time—the virus spreads."

That is not proof that the state's outdoor dining ban was effective. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant rejected this same argument when he struck down Los Angeles' identical county-level ban on outdoor dining in early December.

Chalfant said in a tentative opinion that because the county could only point to generalities about the risk of outdoor dining (no masks, socializing between households etc.) but no actual proof that the practice was particularly likely to spread COVID-19, a policy singling out outdoor dining was "an abuse of the [Health] Department's emergency powers, [and] is not grounded in science, evidence, or logic."

But let's assume for a moment that state estimates about the efficacy of the regional stay-at-home order are correct, and it is responsible for preventing 25,000 cases of severe COVID-19.

If that's true, the policy should be considered ineffective compared to other means of mitigating the pandemic's spread, and ruinously so when compared to the costs it imposed on the state's businesses.

An average of 155,087 people were vaccinated each day over the past week in California, and 88,816 were vaccinated yesterday. The two vaccines approved for use in the U.S., made by Moderna and Pfizer, are both 95 percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 after two doses.

According to some back-of-the-envelope math, that means that yesterday vaccinations in California prevented about three times the number of COVID-19 cases as a two-month regional stay-at-home order. On an average day, the state is preventing through vaccination six times as many COVID-19 cases as were prevented by the stay-at-home order.

One caveat to this is that most of the doses distributed on an average day in California will be a person's first dose, and it takes two doses for the vaccine to be fully effective. Nevertheless, preliminary estimates put the effectiveness of one dose of the Pfizer vaccine at 82 percent. A single dose of the Moderna vaccine is estimated to be 92 percent effective.

Even taking the lower efficacy of one-dose vaccines into account, each day of vaccinations is preventing vastly more COVID-19 cases than the state's regional stay-at-home order. Vaccines also don't have the side effect of wrecking businesses, putting people out of jobs, and harming people's ability to socialize.

One argument in favor of the governor's now-lifted regional lockdown order is that it is still preventing some severe COVID-19 cases, and is thus worth doing, even if vaccinations are a more effective, less costly means of bringing the pandemic to an end.

But there are tradeoffs to every policy. Enforcing a stay-at-home order requires lots of time, money, and manpower to be effective. It seems the state would be much better off taking those resources spent enforcing lockdown orders and instead devoting them to speeding up the rate of vaccinations, which produce much more bang per buck.