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The Social Distancing Backlash Is Here

Updated: Dec 4, 2021

A growing array of people on the left and the right are questioning how policies meant to stop the virus are being implemented

People gather on the Capitol’s steps to protest Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Stay Safe, Stay Home executive order on April 15, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan. Photo: Elaine Cromie/Getty Images

By Andrea González-Ramírez/for Medium

It’s been about one month since local and state governments began encouraging social distancing and implementing stay-at-home policies in an attempt to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. As the uncertainty continues and President Trump pushes for the reopening of the country, a growing array of people on the left and the right are questioning how these measures are being implemented across the nation.

Around 97% of the U.S. population is experiencing a variation of stay-at-home orders. A wide range of infectious disease experts, including U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, have called for states to continue these policies. The measures have proven effective so far, with new cases in hotspots such as New York and Washington growing more slowly than they were in the last few weeks. Still, we’re a long way from getting the number of new cases down to a level that would allow for the end of the shutdown. Social distancing measures vary from state to state, with some instituting hefty fines to those who violate the orders to stay at home, while others are taking a more hands-off approach.

Fed up with social distancing measures, right wing groups have begun organizing anti-lockdown protests in places such as Michigan, North Carolina, and Ohio. (The Michigan protest on Wednesday featured “Make America Great Again” attire and Confederate flags.) Some of the measures — tracking the license plates of churchgoers violating lockdown orders, prohibiting people from traveling from one residence to another, using drones to tell people to socially distance — could be perceived as a clear overreach. But, for some people, it’s not just these excesses but the straightforward closing down of nonessential businesses and orders to stay at home that sting of an infringement of basic rights.

“You don’t light up your entire community on fire to save one person,” Ashley Smith, co-founder of the Facebook group Reopen NC, said. “This is not communist China, this is the United States of America.”

Smith, a stay-at-home mother of four who lives in western North Carolina, believes Gov. Roy Cooper should lift the state’s measures by May 1. Projections released in early April by a group of independent public health experts said that nearly 750,000 North Carolinians could get sick with the coronavirus by June 1 if social distancing measures are lifted next month. As of now, the state has seen nearly 5,500 cases of Covid-19 and 140 deaths/

“Most people right now can’t even buy groceries. I know so many people who are struggling,” she said.

Reopen NC organized a protest against Gov. Cooper on Tuesday. Raleigh Police said one woman got arrested for violating his stay-at-home executive order because “protesting is not listed as an essential function.” The group plans to organize more demonstrations.

Smith’s main concern is the toll that the measures have taken on the economy. About 22 million Americans across the country filed for unemployment benefits in the last month. “Most people right now can’t even buy groceries. I know so many people who are struggling,” she said. “They’ve been waiting five weeks for unemployment, and most have not gotten it yet. The economic fallout is monumental.” She added that the government wouldn’t take such drastic steps to stop the seasonal flu. (The coronavirus is more contagious and deadlier than the flu, and has already proven capable of overwhelming the health care system.)

Worries about the extent of social distancing go beyond economics for some. On the left, there are fears that the enforcement of social distancing measures could lead to the increased targeting of communities of color, particularly those that are Black. Other groups that have historically been disproportionately policed, such as immigrants and the low-income, could also bear the brunt of enforcement. Such communities also already have been more likely to get the coronavirus and die from Covid-19 than other groups.

The concerns around targeted enforcement are not unfounded. Several high-profile cases in recent weeks have raised the specter of excessive policing in the time of coronavirus. In Philadelphia, an unidentified Black man was forcibly dragged out of a bus by nearly 10 officers because he was not wearing a mask. The man was not arrested or cited after the incident, which involved the sort of direct contact with a high-risk group — police, like all frontline essential workers, have suffered high rates of infection — that could have put him at risk, too. In Miami, Armen Henderson, MD, was handcuffed in front of his house for allegedly leaving trash in his yard. Henderson, who is Black and was loading supplies to his van with supplies for homeless residents, who he has been testing for the coronavirus, says he was racially profiled. In the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, two police officers are under investigation after one of them hit an unidentified man who was stopped for breaking the island’s curfew. In New York City, a Black boy was dragged away from his mother and stepfather after police detained him for selling candy on the subway while the city was ordered to stay at home. The stepfather received a summons for disorderly conduct. In Indiana, a Latino driver was arrested for violating the governor’s emergency travel order.

Though there’s no data yet, Taryn Merkl, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, said it’s a possibility that minority communities might be overpoliced during the pandemic’s lockdown phase.

That’s why, she said, police should prioritize other possibilities instead of instantly criminalizing people who are not complying with social distancing measures. “This is such an unprecedented experience for society and for law enforcement. I agree that we should be encouraging police to take up a public health model towards policing, where the guiding rule is do no harm,” she said. Downgrading the type of enforcement would make communities, and officers themselves, safer during the pandemic, Merkl said. That means giving out warnings in lieu of citations, and citations instead of arrests, she said. Or even, as some on social media have suggested, giving out masks to those not wearing them.

On Thursday, Trump unveiled a series of nonmandatory federal guidelines meant to help states determine how to loosen their social distancing restrictions come May 1. But the process of reopening the country is likely to take a while, possibly leading to more anxiety around how these measures will be enforced. The social distancing backlash has just begun.

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