The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Looking for an Off Ramp on COVID Policy


The Omicron wave of COVID has many institutions scrambling. Depressingly, many are acting as if there have been no advances over the past two years. Despite requiring that everyone on campus be fully vaccinated, including boosters, my own university continues to impose aggressive masking requirements, comprehensive asymptomatic testing, extended isolation for asymptomatic individuals who test positive, and draconian restrictions on normal campus activities. In an effort to create some modicum of quarantine conditions, students are prohibited from leaving the county except when engaged in university approved activities. Some of those decisions are being driven by government policies. Princeton is hardly alone in partying like it is 2020. Enough already.

Two years ago, I thought that even libertarians should endorse some pretty intrusive policies early in the pandemic. When confronted with a novel airborne respiratory infection that was fairly contagious even in asymptomatic stages and frequently fatal and for which there were no effective vaccines or therapies, the government had an important role to play in trying to limit the spread of the disease. But I also warned

The machinery of government can be vastly expanded and strengthened during these periods to the detriment of liberty and civil society in the future. We should be cautious about putting in place anything other than temporary measures for addressing the current crisis. If there are long-term reforms that need to be considered in the aftermath so as to better prepare for future epidemics, there will be time to carefully consider them later.


That was two years ago. The scientific community has responded to the pandemic in incredible ways. Extraordinarily effective tests, vaccines and therapies have been developed at a miraculous rate. The government has responded in pretty terrible ways. Public health officials have demonstrated that they must be kept on a short leash and are too often willing to let their personal political preferences and risk aversion affect their policy judgment. Public health institutions have done more to impede and confuse than to facilitate an appropriate response to the pandemic. The FDA and the CDC are due for some fundamental reform. Executive branch officials have demonstrated that they are more than happy to make policy by arbitrary diktat. Politicians and the media have contributed to polarizing issues that should not be polarized and stoking fear for short-term gain. Goalposts are constantly being moved, when there are any goalposts in evidence at all.

We are well past the point when political and institutional leaders need to explain the exit strategy. It is now clear that COVID will remain with us well into the future, and it is also clear that we can reasonably manage the damage with vaccines and therapies and taking appropriate steps to accommodate the most vulnerable when infections are surging. There are plenty of opportunities to take full advantage of an information economy to support remote work when appropriate, and not just for the sake of minimizing the spread of workplace illnesses. It is past time to be doing the cost-benefit analysis on marginal policies.

I am no COVID skeptic and through personal experience understand just how devastating the disease can be. It was ridiculous to say that COVID was like the flu in 2020 when there were no vaccines, no therapies, lots of unknowns, and bodies being stacked in the hallways. I lined up for a vaccine as soon as it was available precisely because that was the obvious path for putting the crisis behind us (and, you know, reducing the risk of slowly suffocating to death).

But it no longer makes sense to maintain emergency measures for a routine situation. It is no longer 2020, and we need to be prepared to say what normal life is going to be like going forward. Normal life should be focused on mitigating the prospects of death, not minimizing the prospects of getting a positive test result.