– April 28, 2020

The government lockdowns and stay-at-home orders are long on lists of things that are essential and not essential without defining or saying what determines whether something is essential or not essential.

What does “essential” mean? A synonym in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “necessary.” “Necessary” has the advantage of being less vague. It also raises a question: “Necessary for what?”

A good example of the arbitrariness of government officials determining what is essential is a recent dust-up concerning professional wrestling in Florida. Florida has determined that sporting events, including professional wrestling matches, are essential. The headline and subheading on a negative editorial show the split: “His explanation doesn’t make much sense” reads the headline with DeSantis’s explanation that “I think people have been starved for content … we’re watching, like, reruns [of sporting events] from the early 2000s” under it.

The headline was written by a true non-sports fan. To those of us who watch little if any sports on television, sporting events are not only not essential, they’re not even interesting.

For those who like to watch sports, on the other hand, the drought of sporting events has in fact resulted in people watching long-ago reruns of events because, for them, it’s better than nothing. They would be a lot happier with new sporting events.

Why pick on professional wrestling in particular when the order concerns sporting events generally? For one, it is easy to make snide comments about professional wrestling. And professional wrestling matches, unlike other sporting events, have started. But professional wrestling matches have an advantage over team sports such as baseball: there are few people in a locker room before a wrestling match. Before sports such as baseball and football can resume, they have to find a way for many athletes to prepare for a game without getting sick. Even eliminating the physical audience or limiting the stadium to a fraction of normal capacity will not resolve that problem. Moreover, most sports are contact sports. They are definitely not “socially distant” games. Wrestlers are in close contact with few people compared to the typical lineman in a football game.

Are professional wrestling matches or other sports events necessary? If you are a sports fan stuck at home worrying about when your life will resume, maybe so. It might be better than hitting the bottle.

Leaving aside sports, what is necessary? One person’s essential or necessary is another person’s unimportant.

To some people, going to church is essential to their salvation. To some people, going to a church is a waste of time.

Are “elective surgeries” essential? The shutdown of hospitals’ non-essential services, which includes bypass surgery, may already have increased deaths due to this apparently not-so-immediate ailment.

Is a lawn service necessary? Some people do not own a lawnmower because they usually use a lawn service. If they have the funds– and if lawnmowers are deemed “essential” – they might buy a lawnmower as an expensive stopgap. Letting the lawn grow for a few weeks, a month or maybe longer might not be very attractive but might be the best thing to do. 

Another problem with limiting production to the so-called essential is that it gives no thought to the specific risks of producing different goods and services. Suppose everyone agreed about what is essential and that we should accept more risk to provide essential services. It does not follow that we should not produce inessential things. It would merely imply that we should not produce inessential things if doing so is too risky.

Shutting down lawn services in the name of “social distancing” reflects ignorance about how lawn services work. The workers mow the yard, do some trimming and leave. They are nowhere near the homeowner and not even close to each other once they get out of  the truck. The workers are around the same one or two other people all day. If even that is too risky, the workers can drive separate vehicles.

Part of the argument for shutting down “inessential” activities is that it is better to have fewer people going to work. This may have been a plausible argument while “flattening the curve.” It misses an important problem beyond that time frame.

It will take a year or more to create and produce a reliable vaccine in the quantity necessary for the United States. In the meantime, every activity accomplished with a stranger will involve the risk that the other person has coronavirus. Besides keeping most people in the U.S. at home until a vaccine is found for the coronavirus, the risk of contracting coronavirus while engaging in everyday activities will be a fact of life.

Taking care can limit the risk of contracting coronavirus. Wearing a mask might be a way to assure people that you are trying to avoid spreading coronavirus to them should you have it. Widespread and readily available testing can limit the risk because people will know whether or not they have coronavirus. Government edicts about “essential” and “not essential” activities are no help.

Gerald P. Dwyer

Dwyer

Gerald P. Dwyer is a Professor and BB&T Scholar at Clemson University. From 1997 to 2012, he served as Director of the Center for Financial Innovation and Stability and Vice President at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Dwyer’s research has appeared in leading economics and finance journals, as well as publications by the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta and St. Louis. He serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Financial Stability, Economic Inquiry, and Finance Research Letters. He is a past President and member of the Executive Committee of the Association of Private Enterprise Education. He is also a founding member of the Society for Nonlinear Dynamics and Econometrics, an organization for which he served as President and Treasurer. Dwyer earned his Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Chicago, his M.A. in Economics at the University of Tennessee, and his B.B.A. in Business, Government, and Society at the University of Washington.

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