Carl Danner writes me:
“Essential activities” has no objective definition. It implies some blanket degree of risk acceptance that can’t be accurate by any underlying calculus, i.e. as if someone has specifically weighed whether we can tolerate these particular activities because they provide enough value to offset the incremental risk of conducting them. But the reality is more likely that those conducting most activities (including “essential” ones) are now undertaking risk mitigation measures intended to reduce the chance of virus transmission to very low or nonexistent levels.
What we need instead — and the logical place for governments to go in unwinding these blanket restrictions — is a recognition that any beneficial economic activity should be allowed if undertaken using a protection protocol appropriate to its particulars and sufficient to prevent virus transmission. This would get government out of the business of choosing which businesses or occupations are essential, vital, important or whatever — including all the problems attendant to making such discretionary determinations across the entire economy for a sustained period. Without that revised approach, we could start to develop occupational licensing/certificate of need type problems as a general feature of the economy.
In other words, this part of the virus response should transition to a health and safety regulatory concern that is important, but handled like most of the others. For example, poor food hygiene can also kill you, but governments generally don’t respond by deciding which cuisines are essential and which are not. Rather, anyone willing to follow the safety rules can put up any menu they want. So it should be for economic activities of all kinds.
We should not lift restrictions until the number of new cases is declining and low and we have enough testing capacity to squash new outbreaks. But we should start to think about what safety protocols may be reasonable in the future. For example, I think we could allow any firm to reopen that does not deal with the public and where all the employees wear masks. Any workplace that disinfects twice a day and checks worker temperatures might be another appropriate allowance. Another possibility is quarantining at work. I don’t see the latter as useful for most workplaces but for say a nuclear energy plant or air traffic controllers it might be appropriate to bring in mobile homes, as they do for fracking workers in North Dakota. Going somewhat farther afield we might use cellphone data to decide on zones of quarantine, e.g. home or work or driving in between. Obviously such systems can be spoofed but the point would be to offer this as a temporary and voluntary system to move towards normalcy.
Hat tip: Michael Higgins.