The federal government’s response to COVID-19 has been a hot mess, and state and city officials haven’t done much better. But if there’s one thing at which governments have excelled during this crisis, it’s been collecting fines from anybody who steps out of line.
Whatever else it is, the great pandemic of 2020 has turned into a revenue-collection opportunity for officials who demonstrate little competence at anything other than squeezing their unfortunate subjects.
In Selah, Washington, Anytime Fitness was fined almost $10,000 by state officials. The owners’ crime? In defiance of the governor’s decree closing such businesses, they opened their doors to willing customers who wanted to make use of the gym’s facilities.
Slidewaters, an outdoor water park, was mugged by Washington for the same amount when it opened its gates without permission.
In Chicago, multiple businesses face similar five-figure fines “for failing to maintain social distancing.”
Nashville, Tennessee, issued citations to dozens of businesses for serving those seeking their services. In the face of criticism about selective prosecution, Metro Public Health Director Michael Caldwell snapped that “operating a business in Nashville Davidson County is a privilege, not a right.”
Nashville’s mayor now insists that city police cite anybody not wearing a face mask in public. The violation carries a $50 penalty—a sum that could add up to big bucks with a little enforcement effort.
But forget a measly fifty bucks—you can squeeze people for even more cash if you hit the unmasked with $100 fines, like Florida’s Miami-Dade County has authorized.
Even more lucratively, Rockland County, New York, residents were threatened with fines of $2,000 per day for blowing off contact tracers.
And travelers to the state of New York can be hit with $2,000 fines if they fail to fill out tracking forms documenting their starting points and their destinations. The requirement is especially interesting since “many passengers said they were unaware they were required to fill out the forms,” according to the New York Daily News. And even among those forms filled out and submitted, none were checked for correct information before they disappeared into a box.
That last example of incompetently administered mandates carrying heavy penalties is a nice example of the contrast between the lockstep obedience government officials demand of the public and the Keystone Cops-quality performance they themselves deliver around the country. Government officials expect that their indecision, poor judgment, lack of foresight, and deadly failures will be overlooked or forgiven, even as they anticipate a profitable take from putting the screws to anybody who fails to submit to their whims.
Those whims include New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order (against the advice of the American Health Care Association) that nursing homes must admit COVID-19 patients. “In the weeks that followed the March 25 order, COVID-19 tore through New York state’s nursing facilities, killing more than 6,000 people — about 6% of its more than 100,000 nursing home residents,” ProPublica reported in June.
Even as he set up senior citizens as guinea pigs, Cuomo engaged in a high-profile feud with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio over who got to set pandemic policy for the city’s residents.
It was an example emulated in Georgia where Gov. Brian Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms also battled over who got to call the shots.
Disagreements over who gets to dictate what have run all the way to the top, with President Donald Trump wrongly claiming he has “total authority” over such decisions, leading to battles with governors who may be no more competent to issue decrees but have somewhat better standing under the law. The president also fights the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over guidelines for reopening schools in the fall.
Spatting politicians don’t agree on how people should avoid spreading the virus, when and how schools should reopen, or the proper balance between social distancing and economic survival, but you can bet they’ll cite and fine any mere taxpayer who doesn’t obey whichever official comes out on top.
Meanwhile, it might not cost a well-connected political type anything. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker made it clear that stay-at-home orders applied only to the little people when his family traveled in defiance of his own commands. A similar “we’re above all that” attitude prevails in the environs of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose husband sought special treatment as the state emerged from travel restrictions.
If the last few months under contradictory, incompetent, selectively enforced, and sometimes deadly pandemic policy have demonstrated anything, it’s that government officials are just floundering in the dark as they inflict policy decisions on the public. But whatever they do decide, we’d all damned well better obey, or else we’ll have to cough up hefty fines for noncompliance.
Maybe that’s because, when nothing else is clear, milking the public occupies the center of any given politician’s happy place. Government officials really don’t know how to properly use the power they have. More importantly, they don’t know when to not use that vast and dangerous power—but, by God, they know how to fill the coffers by punishing the public for not submitting to the whim of the moment. That’s how a pandemic brings a new plague of fines that raise revenue for a government that doesn’t have the slightest idea of how to productively use the haul.