Across this great country on New Year’s Eve, curfews and lockdowns were in effect to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Now, as you’re probably aware, the police don’t have the capacity to enforce every one of these curfews or these lockdowns. This is the same as it is with a bevy of other laws — like, say, drug possession. The way to make the threat work, therefore, is to set the punishment and enforcement at a level commensurate with precluding anyone from breaking the law.
The problem is that, even in that case, you’ll still have people who break the law. And when the police enforce and punish lawbreakers at a level commensurate with deterring others from breaking those curfews or lockdowns, even if they pose no threat and were socially distancing, the police, counterproductively, put people at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19.
Nowhere was this paradox more evident than in Key West, Florida.
The Florida Keys party mecca was obviously going to be anything but this New Year’s Eve, curfew or no curfew. However, the city has a 10 p.m. shutdown every night of the week, no matter what the occasion.
The theory is that more people engage in irresponsible behavior in bars and restaurants after the clock hits 10 than before it — and that, once you put an arbitrary number on a clock, people will return to their homes, where they’ll absolutely not engage in the irresponsible behavior they would have if you kept bars and restaurants open.
Most public houses in Key West followed the directive. Restaurateur Joe Walsh, who has been critical of the city’s policy’s in regard to COVID-19, didn’t.
As the Key West Citizen noted, Walsh — whose properties include Jack Flats, Caroline’s, the Waterfront Brewery and Fogarty’s — spoke before the Key West City Commission opposing the city’s mask rules in November, saying “he does not believe masks effectively stop or slow the spread of the COVID virus and that he allows staff and customers to make their own decisions on whether to wear a face covering while inside his restaurants.”
He told the commission that of his 463 staff members, only 12 had tested positive since the pandemic began, and that he felt that measures like he was taking — employee wellness checks and quarantining with pay if an employee believed he or she was ill — were more effective than mask ordinances and curfews. (Walsh himself, it should be noted, has received a citation for not wearing a mask.)
At least you can give Walsh this much credit: He emailed Key West City Manager Greg Veliz on New Year’s Eve telling Veliz he planned to keep his restaurants open.
“He said it was not a real law,” Veliz said.
It was, according to the Key West Citizen, a “muted event.”
Now, take a look at what ensued and see if you think the use of force somehow helped slow the spread of COVID-19 in Key West:
FL KEY WEST: A 10pm covid curfew was dropped on NYE
Restaurant owner Joe Walsh refused and stood open as many other attendees stayed as well
Police in union with what appears to be “yellow vest” city workers clear the bar out and arrests were made
— Drew Hernandez (@DrewHLive) January 1, 2021
Police arrested at least a half-dozen people on Thursday night for violating the City of Key West’s New Year’s Eve curfew, including prominent restaurateur Joe Walsh. https://t.co/spjNHcv29a
— Key West Citizen (@KeyWestCitizen) January 1, 2021
Veliz said he talked with Walsh in front of his business and said that if he closed down, he wouldn’t be arrested.
“I told him it didn’t have to be this way,” the city manager said. “I turned around and next thing I know he was in handcuffs. It was unfortunate.”
Veliz also said tourists were telling him they came there because they thought the city didn’t have restrictions.
“I had people telling me they come to Key West because there is no rules. That is the problem,” Veliz said.
“Times Square in New York City was closed off and they are telling me [major Key West thoroughfare] Duval Street doesn’t apply,” he said.
Walsh and “at least a half-dozen people” were arrested and processed at the city’s jail.
The lack of situational awareness here from Veliz and law enforcement here is pretty astounding.
I’ve argued elsewhere about the efficacy of mask laws, curfews and lockdowns. I think they’re a waste of time and effort — but so would recapitulating my arguments, so let’s focus specifically on what happened in Key West on Thursday.
During most of the summer, we saw major cities and hamlets alike refuse to enforce rules against public gathering, property destruction and theft because, among other theories, enforcement could have made things worse. The theory was it would have inflamed the racial and political protests — even if those protests could have been vectors of COVID-19 transmission. Politicians didn’t even make a move to dissuade anyone from taking to the streets.
In Key West on Thursday, what can be seen in the video — at least until police moved in — were socially distanced people in a mostly outdoors venue, most of whom appeared to be masked.
What Veliz and law enforcement thought was that going into a situation with a low chance of transmission and turning it into a situation with a higher chance of transmission was meliorative.
And then they took people to jail for processing. We’ve reliably been told jails are such a major vector of transmission that we’re opening up as many prison doors as we can. I’m not familiar with the jail on Stock Island they were taken to, but my imagination tells me that they’d have been safer not going there.
This wasn’t the only New Year’s Eve party in North America where police managed to make things worse.
In Quebec, police were called to a party with seven people that was breaking local law. This is what ensued:
WARNING: The following video contains graphic language that some viewers will find offensive.
Il faut que ça devienne viral. RT en masse les amis. La lumière doit être fait sur cet événement. pic.twitter.com/nnxsGcQcOn
— Nusakan le récalcitrant (@Nusakan007) January 1, 2021
I bring up this very different New Year’s Eve party because the two have one thing in common: Police weren’t protecting property or liberty. They were purportedly protecting people from themselves and from transmitting the virus to others — by making it more likely that they would get the virus and then transmit it to others.
There are plenty of reasons to think people shouldn’t be going to jail because they stayed out or kept their restaurants open after a certain time. You can look at the lost revenue, the lost jobs, the lost freedom or the shaky science behind the curfews.
However, if you really want to see how ineffective these laws are, look at what happened in Key West and ask yourself how much transmission was stopped.
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