Treating COVID-19 seriously, without panic

It has now been a month since the Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton limited in-person gatherings to 15 people, in reaction to anger by some in the community over a large house party attended by Indiana University students on August 19. There is no end in sight to this order.

Should we take COVID-19 seriously? Yes. But the panic and outrage following this party exaggerated the danger of the novel coronavirus. Indiana University claimed that the partying students put the entire student body in serious danger. Statistically speaking, that is simply not true. Healthy people in their 20’s are at extremely low risk of getting seriously ill or dying from this virus.

So why was the gathering limit not issued in July, effective August 1 when the 2020/2021 leases start and students start moving back? After all, every single person in Monroe County knew that students would be partying when they got back. But Hamilton did not issue his executive order until 21 days later, which was conveniently one day after the controversy over the house party made the rounds on social media.

So was Mayor Hamilton doing this as a public health measure, or was this instead a political move to calm the fears of Bloomington residents over students catching and spreading COVID-19?

Of course, there are First Amendment implications of Mayor Hamilton’s order. A number of churches have home fellowship group ministries, and any group that meets in the city has to either move out of the city or request an exemption for permission to exercise our freedom of religion. These home fellowship groups are no more of a risk of spreading COVID-19 than the church services that are explicitly exempted from the order. Freedom of religion is much larger than “freedom of worship” on a Sunday morning, but unfortunately Mayor Hamilton either does not understand that or actively opposes it.

Obviously, we should be taking COVID-19 seriously. But when we see elected officials making policy based on optics and reactions to public outrage, and when we have university officials making exaggerated claims of “danger” that are not backed by statistical data, it causes people to not take this seriously. This is a very bad thing. It is the responsibility of the public to act responsibly, but it is also the responsibility of our leaders to build the public’s trust. When they fail to do that, it undermines efforts to get compliance.

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