Don’t expect the South to be responsible when reopening

Red states in particular seem to be hell bent on throwing off the shackles of the pandemic and reopening their economies because, you know, money is everything.

When announcing these decisions, the governors always include some sanctimonious statement about expecting people to act responsibly when it comes to wearing masks, social distancing, and other safety measures.

But some new statistics suggest people leading the charge are likely to be the least responsible when it comes to personal behavior. Ironically, some new economic studies suggest just throwing caution to the wind won’t solve your economic problems.

The statistics come from the National Center for Health Statistics, which calculated the longevity rates in the 50 states for 2018. Hawaii finished first in the latest rankings, with an average life span of 81 years, while West Virginia brought up the rear at 74.4 years.

California finished second at 80.8 years, and the 11 healthiest states were all in the blue column. Utah was the healthiest red state at 79.6 years, no doubt a reflection of the Mormon opposition to drinking and smoking.

The eight unhealthiest states were all red, seven of them in the deep South. All of them have high levels of gun ownership, maternal mortality, suicide, and drug addiction. They are also high on the charts when it comes to chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, heart disease—most driven by poor personal choices.

Then there are the public health decisions leaders of these states make, which show a strong correlation with longevity. In particular, how did these states respond to Obamacare and the accompanying expansion of Medicaid for the poor?

“States that did not take (Obamacare) tended to be in the South,” said Dr. Eileen Crimmins, co-director of the USC/UCLA Center on Biodemography and Population Health. “Red states just didn’t take the money and so they have large uninsured populations, which has an effect because these people just don’t go to the doctor.”

States leading the charge to reopen include Florida (ranked 22nd) Texas (28th), Oklahoma (45th) and Mississippi (49th). Past experience suggests these people won’t act responsibly when their economies open up and they have to interact in public.

Ironically, it may not do their economies much good, according to recent studies by economists at the University of Chicago who examined what motivates consumers to get out and spend. New research suggests that dormant economies won’t bloom until consumers lose their fear of the coronavirus.

“The state of the pandemic, not any orders the government imposes about the pandemic, is what drives people,” said Chad Syverson, an economist who has studied the phenomenon. “If the pandemic improves, people will go out at a higher rate. The orders themselves are icing on the cake.”

To measure the impact of government imposed lockdowns versus the effect of voluntary distancing, Syverson and his colleague at the University of Chicago, Austan Goolsbee, used cell phone data to track customer visits to 2.25 million businesses in commuter zones across the U.S. last year from January through May.

This allowed researchers to compare consumer behavior in neighboring jurisdictions with the same exposure to COVID-19, but different shelter-in-place policies. If shutdowns were responsible for last year’s economic collapse, jurisdictions that remained opened should have done significantly better than their neighbors that shut down.

Researchers found a 60% decrease in consumer traffic, with only 10% attributable to shelter-in-place orders. In other words, the decline was 10% greater in areas that locked down.

“What all these results have shown is the primary driver of business activity is how comfortable or uncomfortable people feel going out to businesses given what’s going on with the pandemic,” Syverson said.

So don’t expect the pioneers to boom much faster than the laggards like California, but don’t be surprised if the South has to pay the price in a new wave of infections like Europe is currently struggling with.

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