Er, because people need to not starve to death? Actually, this question wasn’t quite as foolish as it seems, although the proper context doesn’t help all that much. In last night’s coronavirus briefing, one reporter asked Donald Trump why the government doesn’t just shut down grocery stores and take-out restaurants and stop all commerce to kill off the virus. Trump offers a non-sequitur to the question, perhaps surprised anyone would ask it (via RedState):
Video: As many people have already pointed out on here, a reporter actually asked Trump about shutting down essential businesses like grocery stores. Seriously.
Here that was. pic.twitter.com/Eg4uJ9v52G
— Curtis Houck (@CurtisHouck) April 6, 2020
Q: Obviously, we know anyone can spread the disease. Right? Unwittingly. So, why even have a few businesses open? Why not just shut everything down? There are grocery stores that are open, fast food places. Why even take a little chance? Just shut it all down, temporarily.
TRUMP: We’ll answer that question later. All I can say is that right now, things are looking really good and opening up with a bang will be a great thing. And there’s nobody gonna be happier than me.
It’s a dumb question, but perhaps not for the reason most think. The federal government doesn’t have the authority to shut down grocery stores, or most other businesses, for that matter. The administration has issued and updated guidelines for how to conduct business in the pandemic crisis, but it’s up to governors to decide how to implement them. A handful of governors haven’t yet issued stay-at-home orders at all, but most if not all have limited people to “essential” businesses, which includes grocery stores, pharmacies, and a limited number of other places of business. That question should be aimed at governors, not the president, in our federalist republic.
However, in fairness, this question follows up on new guidance from Saturday’s briefing, in which the administration’s experts urged Americans to forego pharmacy and grocery shopping over the next two weeks. Dr. Deborah Birx asked everyone to take a pause even on essential business while the “Pearl Harbor moment” comes and goes:
Birx said even critical activities should be curtailed if possible, for a while.
“This is the moment to not be going to the grocery store, not going to the pharmacy, but doing everything you can to keep your family and your friends safe,” she said.
The guidance required a painful sacrifice for many Americans, especially those preparing to celebrate religious holidays that mark the onset of spring. Passover, which commemorates struggles for freedom, begins Wednesday night. And Easter, which is Sunday, was the day Trump initially said he hoped to lift federal guidance on restrictions to stem the pandemic because, “That would be a beautiful thing.”
Perhaps one can make an argument — although the reporter didn’t make it explicit in his question — that this guidance should have been more of an order. If Americans shouldn’t go to the store or pharmacy, why not just have them shut their doors for a couple of weeks? In a vacuum, detached from law and in an academic sense only, that follow-up question makes a little sense.
Of course, this has a common-sense answer. Not all Americans have the resources to stock up for two full weeks ahead of time. They will still need access to groceries and especially pharmacies, since their prescriptions might need renewing over the next two weeks. Besides, an order or strong recommendation to close these stores in the next couple of days will start a panic rush that could end up propagating the transmission of coronavirus even worse than rationed access over the next two weeks might do.
Dr. Birx aimed this guidance at people who don’t need to buy more groceries or visit the pharmacy for the next couple of weeks. If those Americans stay home, we will give more time and resources to those who do need access to these stores and help keep transmission low. That’s not really difficult to figure out, which is what makes this question ultimately rather dumb no matter how you cut it.