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Yes, Government Shutdowns Help Slow COVID-19 When Combined With Additional Measures, Experts Say

Erik Neumann/JPR News

Some GOP lawmakers in California claim “government imposed lockdowns” do not reduce cases or stop spikes of COVID-19. PolitiFact California assesses that claim.

In early December, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a regional stay-at-home order to curb the state’s record spread of COVID-19, which has skyrocketed 117% to 1.6 million cases over the past two weeks.

The new business and travel restrictions were tied to intensive care unit capacity and kicked in within days across most of the state, shutting down bars, wineries, movie theaters, salons, barber shops, all restaurant dining and limiting retailers to operating at no more than 20% capacity.

“The bottom line is if we don’t act now, our hospital system will be overwhelmed,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a news conference on Dec. 3 when he introduced the order.

Shortly after, the state’s GOP lawmakers criticized the move, saying it would harm business and claiming there’s no evidence government “lockdowns” work.

“Government imposed lockdowns do NOT reduce cases or stop spikes,” California state Asm. James Gallagher claimed on Twitter. “Neither science or reality justify the Governor’s announcement today – just look at how California’s case count compares to less restrictive states.”

Gallagher represents much of the northern Sacramento Valley, including Butte, Tehama, Sutter, Yuba, Colusa and Glenn counties.

“By now, it should be obvious that the lockdowns have failed to contain this virus,” added Rep. Tom McClintock, whose district includes Sacramento’s eastern suburbs and Sierra Nevada communities, speaking on the U.S. House floor on Dec. 9.

For months, there’s been robust debate about whether government shutdowns go too far and unnecessarily harm society and the economy.

That’s a debate that will continue and not something we can fact-check. But Gallagher’s claim that government shutdowns don’t reduce COVID-19 cases or stop spikes is more clear cut.

We sifted through the research and asked public health experts to weigh in.

Do government shutdowns work?

Experts and several studies show government-imposed shutdowns do work to slow COVID-19 when combined with mask mandates, social distancing and hand hygiene requirements. They also depend on the public’s willingness to comply with the orders.

Here’s one recent example: A state-mandated stay-at-home order in Delaware this spring, combined with public mask mandates and contact tracing, led to an 82% reduction in COVID-19 cases, an 88% drop in hospitalizations and a 100% decline in deaths, according to a November study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“These strategies are effective in limiting potential exposure to [COVID-19] and reducing community transmission when implemented as part of a multicomponent strategy,” the study concluded.

“No single mitigation strategy is likely to be effective alone,” it added.

Newsom’s new regional stay-at-home order takes a similar approach. It calls for shutting down several business sectors. But it also requires “100% masking and physical distancing,” in sectors that remain open.

Nowhere in the order does it say the government shutdowns by themselves are sufficient to slow the virus.

Success depends on public cooperation

Another study, conducted by economics professors at the University of Kentucky and published in May in Health Affairs medical journal, found that social distancing mandates by state and local governments in the U.S. on average reduced the daily growth rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases by 5.4% after one to five days, 6.8% after six to 10 days, 8.2% after 11 to 15 days, and 9.1% after 16 to 20 days.

Notably, it concluded the “effectiveness” of these orders “depends critically on the cooperation of the public.”

“For example,” the study continued, “although California’s first-in-the-nation shelter-in-place order [from March] carries threats of fines and incarceration, its effectiveness fundamentally relies on social pressure.”

Lee Riley is professor and chair of infectious disease and vaccinology at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. He said the confusion over whether shutdowns work is understandable, considering states with some of the toughest mandates are also experiencing the biggest spikes.

“The problem is when these restrictions are eased or lifted, that’s when we see the resurgence,” Riley explained. “This is what people are looking at and saying the restrictions don’t work. And that’s absolutely incorrect. Restrictions do work.”

Riley said places such as China, Singapore and Taiwan all imposed rigorous restrictions and contained the coronavirus spread. “Yes, the restrictions do work and if they’re maintained for a long enough period, then they can eventually mitigate the transmissions completely.”

Previous fact check

Last month, PolitiFact examined a similar claim by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott who said shutdowns are “ineffective,” before adding that workplace gatherings are not a common way for COVID-19 to spread.

For that fact check, experts told PolitiFact that if measuring strictly transmission rates and case numbers, shutdowns have proven to be effective in managing spread. They also noted that Abbott’s statement ignores workplaces where proper precautions are difficult to achieve from meatpacking plants to the construction industry.

PolitiFact rated Abbot’s claim as False.

'Correlation is not causation'

In an interview, Gallagher, the California state lawmaker, said he stood by his claim that shutdowns don’t reduce cases or stop spikes, describing the evidence as inconclusive.

He suggested that the decline in coronavirus cases this spring could have resulted from people’s voluntary actions to distance and use good hygiene upon hearing about the virus, and not because of lockdowns.

“Correlation is not causation,” Gallagher said. “Just because something happens to happen at the same time that you’re doing X, doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some other variable that was leading to that.”

Riley said Gallagher’s theory doesn’t hold up.

“If good hygiene and voluntary social distancing are what contributed to the decrease in cases, why are we seeing another surge all over the country?” the professor asked.

“The point of the lockdowns is to decrease chances of social gathering and social interaction, which is the most effective way to assure social distancing,” Riley added. “This lawmaker is correct that social distancing works, but lockdowns help to increase the social distancing.”

Gallagher provided links to several opinion pieces and letters that he said demonstrate lockdowns don’t work. One was a link to the Great Barrington Declaration, a letter three scientists authored that endorses herd immunity and supports a completely reopened society for those with no underlying health conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since its publication in early October, however, PolitiFact found the document has been widely criticized by scientists and denounced by top health officials and thousands of doctors around the world.

The paper was signed by scientists and health experts across the world. But a British broadcast station found that some of those who signed the letter online used fake names, including "Dr. Person Fakename" and "Dr. Johnny Bananas." The signatures were later made private.

Gallagher also cited an opinion piece by a chief investments officer for an analytics firm; a free-market think tank’s magazine column that cites the Great Barrington Declaration; an article in the journal Nature that says a combination of “non-pharmaceutical interventions,” such as business closures, social distancing or mask-wearing, “is necessary to curb the spread of the virus,” but that less disruptive restrictions can be as effective as more drastic ones.

Additionally, Gallagher cited a study published in Safety Science that concluded Germany’s decline in COVID-19 infections in the spring was due to the cancellation of mass events and voluntary behavior changes, but not the government restrictions that followed.

Germany announced it will start a lockdown this week until at least Jan. 10 to curb the spread of the pandemic.

The science is 'Pretty clear'

Erin Mordecai is an assistant professor in biology at Stanford University whose research focuses on the ecology of infectious disease. She has conducted research on the relationship between virus transmission and mobility data in California and Georgia. She said mobility, measured based on mobile device movements, generally declines immediately following stay-at-home orders. That reduction in mobility corresponds with a decline in transmission and ultimately the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, she said.

“The science shows pretty clearly that non-pharmaceutical interventions---business closures, social distancing, mask-wearing---including so-called ‘government lockdowns’ do work to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Mordecai wrote in an email.

Right now, she added, there’s a strong argument for shutting down in- person contact as much as possible.

“If our ICUs are nearing their maximum capacity, as we're seeing here in California now,” she wrote, “one of our best tools for avoiding a total public health disaster---people dying in hospital hallways, makeshift COVID wards thrown together in gymnasiums, or at home because they're too afraid to go to the hospital---is to rapidly hit the brakes on transmission, which means avoiding contact with others outside our household, especially indoors, where transmission is more likely.”

Our ruling

California state Asm. James Gallagher claimed “Government imposed lockdowns do NOT reduce [COVID-19] cases or stop spikes.”

Infectious disease experts, however, say government shutdowns do work by reducing social interaction which, when maintained, cuts down on the spread of COVID-19.

Several studies, including from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show government-imposed closures, when combined with mask-wearing, social distancing and hand hygiene, are effective.

The studies and experts also point out there’s no single strategy that works on its own. California officials have imposed business restrictions while promoting additional strategies to combat COVID-19.

We rated Gallagher’s claim as False.

Source list

Asm. James Gallagher, tweet, Dec. 3, 2020 and video interview Dec. 11, 2020Lee Riley, professor and chair of infectious disease and vaccinology, UC Berkeley School of Public Health, video interview Dec. 10, 2020

Erin Mordecai, assistant professor of biology, Stanford University, phone interview Dec. 10, 2020

California Department of Public Health, Regional Stay At Home Order, Dec. 3, 2020

Study in HealthAffairs.org, Strong Social Distancing Measures In The United States Reduced The COVID-19 Growth Rate, May 14, 2020

Declines in SARS-CoV-2 Transmission, Hospitalizations, and Mortality After Implementation of Mitigation Measures— Delaware, March–June 2020

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nov. 13, 2020The New York Times, California Coronavirus Map and Case Count, accessed December 2020

CapRadio, California Introduces Regional Stay-At-Home Order Based On ICU Capacity, Dec. 3, 2020

San Francisco Chronicle, California shuts down to curb coronavirus surge. Will it work?, Dec. 1, 2020PolitiFact, Examining the effectiveness of Texas' statewide shutdowns, Nov. 27, 2020PolitiFact, Great Barrington herd immunity document widely disputed by scientists, Oct. 27, 2020

Donald L. Luskin, op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal, The Failed Experiment of Covid Lockdowns, Sept. 1, 2020

Study in Safety Science, A phenomenological approach to assessing the effectiveness of COVID-19 related nonpharmaceutical interventions in Germany, November 2020

City Journal, A Failed Experiment, Autumn 2020

Nature, Ranking the effectiveness of worldwide COVID-19 government interventions, Nov. 16, 2020

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