Social distancing rules are getting out of hand in the coronavirus era

We’re all doing our best to “social distance.” We get it. But we’d be happier doing it without Big Brother hovering over us.

We’re all doing our best to “social distance.” We get it. This novel coronavirus spreads through the air, and two metres between people is needed to keep ourselves from infection or from infecting others. We’re most of us trying to do that. But we’d be happier doing it without Big Brother hovering over us. Because, as I said, we get It

Last Friday, Oakville, Ont resident Todd Nelson took his three sons roller-blading at the Glen Abbey Community Centre. According to Ontario’s emergency laws, recreation centres are off-bounds. But nobody else was around. After 45 minutes, a bylaw officer arrived and told them to leave. When Nelson asked why, the officer turned frosty and Nelson ended up with a $880 ticket after surcharges.

Yes, he broke the law, but that particular law is stupid. Stupid laws have consequences that governments should consider before crafting them. Put together an empty expanse of asphalt, three housebound boys bursting with a need for the gross motor movement that is normal for their age, and a father who is trying desperately to keep himself and his kids in good spirits.

Now tell him he has broken a stupid law by giving his kids exercise and fun, in the process putting nobody at risk for anything, then burden him with a hefty fine, money that might otherwise have been his mortgage payment. Well done, Ontario government! With this gratuitous display of state power, you’ve just created another bitter citizen, and gave the many thousands of Canadians who read that story a slow burn.

This was not a freak one-off.

In Fort Saskatchewan, the Nipawin Apostolic Church arranged for a drive-in Easter service. People were to park their cars in the church lot, windows closed, with an empty space between cars (why? A virus can’t go through glass. But it shows how seriously people take the social-distancing rubric), and listen to the service through their radios. Other churches have already done this. The Saskatchewan Health Authority tried to pull the plug on it, citing a public health order issued in March limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people. But these were responsible people in separate cars, for heaven’s sake, not a group of strangers sharing a joint in a hot tub.

The Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (on whose board I sit) has sent a letter to the health authority expressing concern about the drive-in service being declared a mass gathering. In it the JCCF’s litigation manager Jay Cameron said, “People are longing for a sense of community during the coronavirus outbreak and they still have a right of freedom of association and religion as protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” If the health authority does not admit it made a mistake that will not be repeated, Cameron said the JCCF will consider legal action.

The enthusiasm for curbing freedoms is not unique to Canada. COVID-constraint overkill is becoming something of a pandemic itself.

In England, police are permitted aggressive tactics to ensure people are following the rules. At a press conference, Northamptonshire Chief Constable Nick Adderley said the police could put up roadblocks to  prevent unnecessary journeys and – “if people do not heed the warnings”—could even start searching shopping trolleys to make sure supermarket customers aren’t buying unnecessary items. On Twitter later, Adderley walked that statement back, but only because of blowback. Clearly he did not see the Maoist insanity of the impulse itself.

On Good Friday, South Yorkshire police were forced to apologize after an officer in Rotherham was caught on film telling a dad and his children they were not permitted to hang out in their own front yard. (If the name of Rotherham is familiar to you, it’s because it was the epicentre of a years-long culture of sex slavery—let’s call it a rape-a-demic, to give it a contemporary gloss—practiced by South Asian gangs preying on teenage white girls, while the police and social services turned a blind eye so they wouldn’t be called racists. There is a certain irony here in the juxtaposition of these disparate attitudes in the same police force, can’t quite put my finger on it.)

In Louisville, Kentucky, Christians were prohibited by their mayor from a drive-through Easter Sunday service. The congregation sued, arguing the mayor had violated their right to freedom of expression. The judge agreed and rebuffed the mayor’s fiat. In Brighton, Colorado, police officers handcuffed a man for playing T-ball with his wife and daughter on a nearly empty baseball field, even though the order he had allegedly breached referred to groups of five or more.

Michigan’s Democrat governor Gretchen Whitmore, apparently eager to showcase her suitability as vice-presidential material, has distinguished herself for extremism on this file. She has banned people from visiting other homes altogether. In Michigan, you can’t hunt or fish or take out your motorboat (stuff “deplorables” like to do), but you can canoe and kayak (stuff the eco-enlightened virtuecrats like to do). She has also banned “non-essential” sections of supermarkets, which had to be cordoned off. So you can buy a lottery ticket (yeah, that sounds essential) but not a can of paint (too bad you have all that time on your hands, and a room in which you would be working alone that needs attention).

Who is Gretchen Whitmore to decide what is “essential” and what is not amongst items that are literally found together under the same roof? Her l’état, c’est moi gambit misfired, though, as thousands of pissed-off Michiganers congregated in an estimated 10,000 cars in “Operation Gridlock,” waving placards reading, “Gov. Whitmore We are not Prisoners,” and “Michigander Against Gretchen’s Abuses.”

Back in Canada, Ottawa’s associate medical officer, Dr. Brent Moloughney, told reporters on Tuesday that he was concerned about people finding “loopholes” in the emergency order enacted Mar 28, which prohibits gatherings of more than five people. So basically he would like people to stop having any contact whatsoever with neighbours or friends, even over a fence. “The problem with beer on the driveway or a chat over the fence is that it can turn into a parking lot or backyard party,” he said. (I can honestly say I have chatted with my neighbours over the fence a hundred times, and never once has it turned into a street party.)

That got walked back when people protested, as well it should, but the words speak to an elitist view of the people as a proletariat so moronic they can’t be given an inch lest it instantly turn into a foot. Who and what does he think he is?  As Andrew Potter notes in an excellent column in Thursday’s National Post, calling for the right to hold a contrarian opinion on how best to handle this crisis,  “our public health officers are no doubt doing their best under very difficult circumstances, but they are not gods.” And they shouldn’t act like they are.

There is more than one legitimate way to confront this crisis.

Sweden, for example, is pursuing a “common sense” strategy with regard to social distancing. Schools are remaining open and so are pubs. There is no general lockdown. Yet so far the spread of infection is not higher than other in other countries. How can they allow this latitude? Because Sweden is a “high trust” society. Polls consistently show that 60% of Swedish people trust their government, double the level in Britain and the U.S. “There’s also trust the other way,” Dr. Tragardh said. “The government and state institutions, generally speaking, trust citizens to do the right thing.” A-ha!

The Swedish approach may be proved wrong in terms of how many people end up infected and dying. For the purpose of this column, though, the point is: whatever rules are in place are being obeyed there, because the rules are perceived as rational and necessary. In parts of Canada and the U.S. and the UK, people are being subjected to irrational rules that run counter to common sense. We are being treated not only as though we were members of a low trust society—which in general is not true; Canadians tend to be very respectful of authority—but as though the government has zero trust at all in those they govern.

We are experiencing a crisis, but even in a crisis, citizens still have rights that should not be abrogated cavalierly on the principle that no cost is too great for the benefit of zero infections. In a free society the goal cannot be perfection. We balance risk for part of the population  against benefits to the whole all the time. If we really believed that saving a single life justified severe hardship for everyone, we would shut down all the highways.

As this crisis perdures, we had better see more common sense and more respect for Canadians’ rights from state authorities. Trust us, and most of us will return the favour. “Most” is all you can expect in a democracy, and it’s all you need to win this battle. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.