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Beware of new, never-ending coronavirus bureaucracies

Long after COVID-19 is gone, we’ll still be living with the threat of fines and lawsuits for placing strips of tape on the floor that are six feet apart when the regulations say six feet two inches.

If a hurricane was headed toward the coast of the United States, no one would expect the government to stop the storm from moving. Some things are beyond the power of government.

That’s why it’s a good idea for the power of governments to be restrained, even in an emergency. Otherwise they tend to overreach, and then when the storm is over, there’s no clear way to put things back the way they were.

On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom held a news briefing to explain to the public what he said he has been discussing privately — the process and criteria for easing the coronavirus stay-at-home restrictions and allowing people in California to move freely again.

As he laid out what he called the “parameter” and the “framework,” it was depressingly clear that the outcome of this pandemic response will be a permanent bureaucracy and a new torrent of rules that the state will formulate and enforce to the detriment of the people of California, as always, in the name of doing what’s best for us.

Some earlier examples of this: In the name of preventing climate change, the California Air Resources Board is writing rules to control ride-share companies, and Caltrans is now formulating rules that will encumber highway-widening projects while enabling road diets. The good intentions are trumpeted at the outset, but the negative consequences are never far behind.

Newsom was the first governor in the U.S. to issue a statewide stay-at-home order to attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus, and now we’re seeing how difficult it is to un-issue it in the face of economic devastation for millions.

“Two more weeks” of stay-at-home, the governor said on Tuesday, and then “ask the question again” about when he’ll allow normal functioning, or new-normal functioning, to resume.

In the meantime, he has set up six task forces to work on six different criteria for allowing the state to reopen.

The first criterion is testing, tracking and tracing. Newsom spoke about hiring a new workforce to do contact tracing of everyone in the state who tests positive for the coronavirus. Each of the people who came in contact with an infected person would be informed and told to isolate.

Here it’s important to differentiate between something that’s a good idea and something that is enforced by government power. What are the implications of massive statewide contact tracing by government employees? Who has access to that information? What are the limits on data collection, and what are the privacy protections? Will insurance companies and employers be entitled to receive notifications of potential infection? Will people be thrown out of work because they happened to be in a restaurant or on an airplane with someone who later tested positive? What are the potential consequences for businesses such as restaurants and airlines if people think patronizing them could put their livelihood at risk?

Is it necessary for the government to have a contact-tracing workforce? Could it be managed on a voluntary basis by individuals and businesses without a government workforce?

These are questions we should ask right now, because in two weeks, there may be a new unionized government workforce assigned to contact tracing, and there will be no going back once that happens.

Another “parameter” that the governor said he’ll use to determine whether the state can reopen involves what he called “reviewing our floor plans.” Facilities “public and private” will have to adapt to the government’s “strategies, guidelines and expectations” for physical distancing.

It’s one thing to suggest this as a voluntary matter. Everyone wants to be safe. Every business wants its employees and customers to be safe. Every school wants its students, faculty and staff to be safe.

What does it mean in practice for the government to have “expectations” that floor plans will change to enable physical distancing? It is likely to mean a new bureaucracy will write rules and enforce them.

Bureaucracies are slow and inflexible. Long after COVID-19 is gone, we’ll still be living with the threat of fines and lawsuits for placing strips of tape on the floor that are six feet apart when the regulations say six feet two inches.

It’s crucially important that we protect both our health and our freedom. Government can do some things, but not everything. We have to know when to say no.

Susan Shelley is an editorial writer and columnist for the Southern California News Group. Susan@SusanShelley.com. Twitter: @Susan_Shelley