COVID-19 regulations aren’t cost-free

Photo by Charley Myers

When it comes to the measures still in place to address COVID-19, our leaders are oddly reluctant to engage in any discussion of the costs.

People tend to have a visceral dislike of putting a dollar value on things like health and safety. I  understand. It feels wrong to put a number next to something as priceless as human life.

But when we’re talking about executive orders that affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, ignoring the full cost is tantamount to malpractice.

For example, consider the recently announced COVID-19 vaccine mandate from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, issued at the behest of the president and scheduled to go into effect Jan. 4.

Promulgated by OSHA without going through the ordinary rulemaking procedures, it says that all workers at private companies with 100 employees or more must be vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing and wear a face mask at work. Noncompliance will result in severe penalties and fines.

The order immediately faced numerous legal challenges nationwide, with plaintiffs ranging from trucking companies to media organizations to small business advocacy groups. The many challengers universally claim that the rule is an overreach of executive power that will have a devastating effect on business.

Transportation companies say it will disrupt the supply chain. State governments say it will interfere with their own policies and local economies. Retail groups say that compliance would be “virtually impossible.” A manufacturing company in Ohio claims the mandate will cause it to lose 17 workers and cost it approximately $1 million in personnel costs.

In other words, every restriction, mandate, rule or order has a cost. Maybe the cost is worth it. Maybe it isn’t. But how can we know if we don’t make the effort to understand the full picture?

For nearly two years, policymakers have been closing their eyes to the full cost of their decisions. In Hawaii, we all know of local businesses that have died, or are barely hanging on, as a result of the seemingly endless yo-yo-ing between different coronavirus tiers and restrictions. Every single struggling business represents neighbors, friends and family who have lost a job, all or much of their savings, a dream or more.

The governor has given no indication that he will ever end his emergency orders. While we have already achieved his earlier-announced 70% vaccination goal, that standard was quietly disposed of in favor of a subjective it’s-over-when-we-say-it-is standard.

The governor’s most recent proclamation expires on Nov. 30, but does anyone really believe that it won’t be renewed?

All around us are signs that the public is growing weary of executive overreach and is ready to get on with normal life. Punishing the majority because some people choose not to vaccinate sounds a bit too much like giving the whole class detention because one student was talking during the principal’s morning announcements. We all hated it when we were in elementary school, and the tactic hasn’t improved with time.

Fortunately, there is reason to hope. At the national level, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans just yesterday ordered the federal government to halt all enforcement of the OSHA mandate while legal challenges work their way through the federal court system.

The court in New Orleans was ruling on a request by petitioner and Louisiana business owner Brandon Trosclair and a group of employees from Texas who sued over the mandate last week. Trosclair employs nearly 500 people across 15 grocery stores in Louisiana and Mississippi. After the ruling, he said: “It’s wrong for the federal government to order me to interfere in the private medical decisions of my team members or to impose insurmountable costs on my businesses.”

Here in Hawaii, House Speaker Scott Saiki said this week he intends to introduce legislation in the 2022 legislative session that would curb the governor’s emergency powers — which was music to my ears, since that is something the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii has been recommending for more than a year.

“I don’t think anyone agrees that a proclamation should continue forever,” Saiki was quoted as saying. “I’ll be working on a bill that will allow the Legislature to basically disapprove the governor’s emergency proclamation, whether it’s the entire proclamation or just a portion of the proclamation.”

My hope is that this will mean the end of arbitrary executive rule in our state. More than anything, we need to see our government’s constitutional balance of powers restored. With legislators taking a more active role in the management of emergencies, we could feel more confident that our voices were being heard, and that the costs of any state actions are fully understood and considered.

We have all paid a price to stop COVID-19. Now, we need to see that our leaders appreciate that fact and return the power to the people.

This commentary was Keli’i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for Nov. 13, 2021. If you would like to have his columns emailed to you on a regular basis, please call 808-864-1776 or email info@grassrootinstitute.org.

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