The Mercury (Pottstown, PA)

Where is that nanny state when Americans really need it?

- Catherine Rampell

Sometimes government must be willing to play bad cop. Now — when the United States desperatel­y needs more and stricter coronaviru­s vaccinatio­n requiremen­ts — is one of those times.

Coronaviru­s cases and hospitaliz­ations are spiking. Nearly a fifth of Americans say they’re unlikely to ever get vaccinated against the coronaviru­s. The risk that more contagious variants will develop grows each day. In this environmen­t, public officials and employers have offered tons of incentives to entice the vaccine-resistant to get shots. Such carrots don’t seem to be working, though.

Some companies have announced what appear to be sticks: requiremen­ts for workers (and sometimes customers) to get the shot or get the boot. But these moves also seem unlikely to change much behavior. Companies are choosing vaccinatio­n policies that reflect the existing preference­s of their workforces — or alternativ­ely, avoiding decisions on mandates entirely — because managers don’t want to alienate anyone. After all, workers are scarce, consumers are mercurial, and vaccines remain polarizing.

That’s why we need government to step in. Public officials must be willing to make unpopular, sometimes controvers­ial decisions that take the heat off private industry and protect the public welfare. That is: We need government to be the fall guy.

Managers, nursinghom­e administra­tors, school leaders and others merely trying to keep workplaces safe need to be able to plausibly tell anti-vaxxers: “Shucks, if it were up to me, you could take whatever risks you want. Out of my hands though! Big Bad Government says you must be vaccinated to [fill in the blank].”

This is virtually the same situation we were in a year ago when private industry was weighing other kinds of safety measures.

Last year, airline executives begged the Trump administra­tion to issue an in-flight mask mandate. Airlines knew mask requiremen­ts were necessary. They also knew a unilateral­ly implemente­d requiremen­t would make some customers angry. The Trump administra­tion wouldn’t oblige, but President Joe Biden did. Retailers felt similarly hung out to dry. The Retail Industry Leaders Associatio­n pleaded in July 2020 for “every governor to require consumers who are not (encumbered) by a medical condition to wear masks when shopping or in public places.”

In general, government interventi­on is most justifiabl­e when inaction would harm innocent bystanders. Think: polluting cars, secondhand smoke, infectious diseases. When it comes to vaccinatio­n mandates, though, few officials are willing to stick their necks out.

And in a sense, who can blame them? There’s an entire political party eager to disingenuo­usly exploit such decisions as evidence of “Big Government” trampling on “freedoms.” If some official is willing to fall on their sword to protect public health, a nearby right-wing demagogue will gladly drive the blade deeper.

In some states, Republican­s hoping to raise their national profile are even going a step further by preemptive­ly tying the hands of local officials and private-sector executives who are willing to make difficult decisions to safeguard the public.

As infections rise, these decisions look increasing­ly foolish. Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson recently admitted that he regretted signing a law blocking school districts from requiring masks; he expressed gratitude that a judge had bailed him out.

“Thank goodness,” Hutchinson said Sunday, that “the court stepped in and held that as unconstitu­tional.”

Businesses passing the buck to politician­s; politician­s passing the buck to judges. Where’s that “nanny state” when you need it?

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