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The lessons from Wisconsin’s lockdown lifting

Even after lockdowns end, people aren’t returning to normality

June 11, 2020

4:47 PM

11 June 2020

4:47 PM

Has the end of lockdown caused a large second spike in COVID-19 infections? We have a possible answer to this question because the experiment was carried out in Wisconsin on May 15 when the US state’s Supreme Court overthrew the governor’s ‘stay at home’ order. Gov. Tony Evers was disgusted by the move, precipitated by the state legislature and won on a technicality. He declared his state to be the ‘Wild West’ and predicted a surge of deaths.

What happened in the two weeks following the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision has now been studied by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Its conclusion? There was no discernible effect on the infection rate. This was not necessarily much to do with the virus itself, however. Wisconsin’s 5.8 million residents simply refused to exercise their new found freedoms. Rather they continued with their own self-imposed lockdown.

Five of the state’s 72 counties imposed their own local stay at home orders, but the vast majority did not. People were suddenly free to resume ordinary life. The researchers studied what happened next via smartphone data. Taken across the state as a whole, prior to the lifting of the lockdown just under 40 percent of residents were staying at home all day. In the two days immediately following the lifting of the order this briefly fell to just over 30 percent. Yet two days after that it shot up to 45 percent — higher than it had been throughout the first half of May. From that peak, there then followed a slow decline in the proportion of people staying at home all day.


There was a similar pattern when the researchers looked at the median number of hours people were spending at home. In the first two days it fell, then it spiked, and then it fell away steadily. It was as if a few people reacted to the lifting of the order by rushing out to enjoy themselves — or maybe to check on relatives — and then voluntarily retreated back indoors.

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We have learned a lot about the virus in recent weeks but we have also learned a lot about human behavior. Either through a sense of public duty, or simply through fear for their own safety, people have taken it upon themselves to impose their own personal lockdowns even when the law does not demand that they do so. This could have consequences for the economy.

This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.


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