Why can't you go fishing during the pandemic?

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Millions of Americans are doing their best to comply with the various restrictions imposed by the nation’s governors, even as we question their wisdom and, more to the point, their efficacy. Shutting down Major League Baseball is one thing. But fishing alone on a boat? What about reading books on park benches?

To which the answer, in my home state of Michigan and many others throughout the country, is please, you scofflaws. Try an approved activity instead, like visiting a legal drug dealer — curbside pickup of marijuana only though — or renting another movie from Jeff Bezos.

There is, not to put too fine a point on it, zero evidence in favor of the idea that adults working through their pandemic reading lists in the open air will increase the number of deaths or even infections from this disease. Nor does it make any sense to allow stores to remain open but restrict the items they sell, which is what has happened recently in my home state of Michigan, where retailers are roping off everything from seeds and garden tools to paint and infant car seats on the orders of our Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer. (Forgive me if you habitually purchase your groceries at Home Depot. I am not judging your lifestyle choices, but simply remarking on how unusual they are.)

Why does anyone think this is a good idea? If painting your garage or planting hydrangeas is what helps you remain calm and hopeful while civilization is on hold, why interfere? If you own a weekend cottage and want to go there and practice "social distancing" amid more idyllic surroundings, should that really be punishable as a misdemeanor? The only thing these and other punitive measures are likely to encourage is suspicion of even the most seemingly sensible restrictions. Someone who is told that the virus is so serious that he cannot legally drive to his own cabin in the middle of nowhere, back in his old Crestliner boat, and take a few brown trout out of the lake is going to start asking how, well, serious it really is. I admit that I do not have an elaborate statistical model to back up this assertion or even so much as a single graph. Instead I am relying upon common sense, that hoariest and most unfortunately neglected of epistemological tools.

Common sense is exactly what has been lacking throughout this pandemic. This has been true of nearly everyone in a position of authority. Telling people that they cannot engage in ordinary, wholesome, totally risk-free activities is not, as Whitmer recently put it, "the best science." It is not any kind of science. An approach to the virus grounded in science — as opposed to omnidirectional prophecies of doom — would consider the question of why many serious infections appear to be nosocomial, which is a fancy way of saying acquired in the hospital, not from playing tee ball. It would ask what it means that there is no meaningful statistical relationship between the speed with which states have shut down and death totals, not even when analysis is restricted to the nation's 15 most populous states. It would consider the not exactly remote possibility that serological testing could soon reveal that the virus arrived on these shores much earlier and is vastly more widespread than most people imagined. It might even involve a bit of epistemic humility about the recent (but now curiously abandoned) calls for more ventilators. Instead of considering any of these dimensions of the crisis, our leaders in the name of public health take steps that go beyond even those called for by models that have already been proven wrong (or, if you insist that scientists are always right even when they are wrong, "revised.")

Why though? I am inclined to say that the only explanation for bans on motorboating and reading alone in the park is spite — the delight people in positions of power take in punching down because they can and they get their jollies from it. This is not, of course, incompatible with the notion that our politicians are foolish, unimaginative, and largely immune from the disastrous consequences of their own bad decisions.

If you are not persuaded by this account, just ask yourself which is more likely: that when excitable public officials are allowed to take sweeping actions of a kind never witnessed in the entire history of common-law jurisdictions, where things like basic freedom of movement existed long before America was even an idea, they will sometimes abuse their power, or that even fish have the virus? I'll wait.

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