The U.S. Is in a Pandemic Freefall. Why Isn’t There a Federal Lockdown?

Message from experts is ‘you’re on your own’

Dana G Smith
Elemental
Published in
5 min readNov 16, 2020

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A health care worker talks to a person waiting in their car at a coronavirus testing site at Ascarate Park on October 31, 2020 in El Paso, Texas. Photo: Cengiz Yar/Stringer/Getty Images

The United States is in a state of pandemic freefall, and we’ve already used up our parachute.

Coronavirus cases are surging uncontrollably with rates higher than they’ve ever been. Nearly every day last week broke the previous day’s record, with more than 170,000 people testing positive for the virus on Friday alone. Hospitalizations are also increasing, surpassing numbers from the spring and summer peaks with no indication of slowing down. And after hospitalizations come deaths, rising for five straight weeks and on track to reach their highest number since July any day now.

Countries in Europe, including France, Germany, and the U.K., re-enacted nationwide restrictions in October for case numbers a fraction of the United States’. But despite the dire state the U.S. is in, experts say you shouldn’t expect a national lockdown any time soon, or potentially ever again. There have been some local exceptions made recently — Oregon, New Mexico, Michigan, Washington, and Chicago started temporary, targeted stay-at-home orders — but these will likely be the exception, not the norm.

The reason is primarily economic. In March, the federal government passed the CARES Act, which offered $2 trillion to individuals and businesses to offset the economic impact of the pandemic. But efforts to renew the bill have stalled in the Senate for months, and hope for a new stimulus package during the last months of the Trump administration is shrinking. Without that support, the financial consequences of another round of stay-at-home orders could be dire.

“People can’t just be expected to stay home indefinitely and not be able to support themselves or feed themselves or their families.”

“It’s really hard to ask people to [shelter in place] without support from the federal…

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Dana G Smith
Elemental

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental