Commentary: Listen to the experts, but make policy based on all factors

Health experts appear to be fighting a losing battle to get politicians to enforce mask mandates and lockdowns to prevent a fourth COVID-19 surge.

With virus cases and hospitalization rising in many states, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently issued an emotional and dire warning, saying she is scared and has a “recurring feeling  . . . of impending doom.”  

But many Americans seem to have had enough of coronavirus constraints. While most political leaders still encourage mask wearing, many governors are relaxing restrictions, allowing businesses and schools to open and people to mingle at restaurants and all sorts of gatherings. Mask mandates are becoming mask encouragement.

Critics of COVID-19 restrictions argue that lockdowns and mask mandates haven’t helped much and the economic damage has been worse than any health benefits.

I’m not smart enough to know who is precisely right. I respect the opinions and recommendations of health experts and believe they are doing their best to eliminate the virus. But I believe elected political leaders are best positioned to make the final decisions about mandates and restrictions. They should listen to the health experts, but also take into consideration economic harm and the impact of closing businesses, increasing unemployment, and damage done by closing schools.

Health experts don’t make policy during a pandemic for the same reason generals in the military don’t declare war and highway safety experts don’t determine speed limits. Highway safety experts could eliminate millions of accidents causing injury and death by forcing us all to drive 20 MPH in cars built like tanks. Lots of pain, suffering and death could be eliminated by prohibiting alcohol and tobacco, grounding all airplanes, and forbidding people from climbing ladders.

But there are always other factors to take into account. There is always collateral damage when narrowly focused subject experts make the policy. They know they can save lives, but they may not do cost-benefit analyses. They focus too much on one risk that is obvious to them, while not understanding all of the costs. Following the science makes sense, as long as the science factors in all consequences.

Scientists and the medical community have been magnificent in this pandemic. I appreciate their hard work and care, their miraculous development of vaccines and treatments. Doctors, nurses and other caregivers have put themselves at tremendous risk to save others.

But the policymakers, even in a global pandemic, ought to be the leaders elected by voters. Utah policymakers seems to have found the right balance.

Club for Growth misfires. The Club for Growth recently sent out one of the more silly and irrelevant press releases I’ve seen for a while. It announced its missed votes scorecard for the 2021 legislative session and highlighted the lawmaker in the House and Senate who missed the most votes.

According to Club for Growth Foundation President David McIntosh, “Constituents need to know the missed votes records of their representatives so they can decide for themselves if elected officials are avoiding a difficult vote or have a legitimate reason for missing a particular vote.”

Problem is, they singled out two lawmakers who don’t deserve the criticism for missing the most votes. They noted that Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, missed the most votes in the Senate. But they failed to point out that Stevenson is the Senate Appropriations Committee chair, which requires him to often be working on budget issues during floor time. It’s common for the Appropriations chair to miss votes on inconsequential issues.

Worse, Club for Growth singled out Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, for missing 664 votes out of 667. They did have the good sense, however, to note that Hawkins contracted COVID-19 before the session began. Hawkins spent the session battling for his life in a hospital ICU. He was finally able to join electronically at session’s end from his hospital bed with tubes in his nose. In his electronic appearance he said he looked forward to getting out of the ICU and going to a long-term care facility to learn how to walk and swallow again.

Except for egregious, no-excuse situations, it makes little sense to judge a legislator by how often she or he votes. Often, the most effective lawmakers, the ones who carry the most important bills, miss more votes than the average legislator because important bills take hours of negotiations and hard work, and that may require missing a few votes.