It’s difficult to tell when baselines are shifting around you as it happens. That’s why slow-motion disasters that unfold over a long period of time are more difficult for policymakers to respond to than sudden, containable calamities. Disasters that unfold slowly tend to insidiously establish those new baselines, making it easier for policymakers to either ignore them completely or address them only in fits and starts. Disasters that happen all at once, suddenly, are easier for policymakers to notice and respond to because they can address the problems with the benefit of hindsight.

It’s also why elected officials are so much better at addressing disasters after the fact, at all levels of government and across party lines, than they are when they’re right in the middle of one. It’s easy for politicians to convince themselves that they have the solutions once a problem is over, and it’s nearly impossible to prove them wrong. That’s why so many new programs, laws and regulations tend to simply stay in place forever, rather than being re-evaluated for effectiveness.

The response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is a prime example of this. After the attacks, the United States put in a whole host of new security procedures, and most of us gradually got used to them. Indeed, enhanced security has become such a pervasive part of American life that it now seems normal not just at airports, but also at football games. It’s hard to remember now that you used to be able to walk right up to a gate to greet your family even without a ticket, or go to a professional sporting event without passing through a metal detector. They’ve all become part of a new normal.

An ongoing disaster like the pandemic, though, is much more difficult for government (at least, democratic ones) to respond to effectively. When restrictions were first imposed around this country in the spring, it was expected that they would be temporary measures used to slow the spread of the virus, and that was understandable. Basically, governments told us that this was to be a short-lived solution to a crisis. That’s completely understandable, as most citizens of a free country would not have tolerated an interminable lockdown.

Unfortunately, the American approach of short-term restrictions to slow the pandemic has not worked, as evidenced by the resurgence of the virus in Maine and nationwide. Now, policymakers are left in the unenviable position of deciding how to respond to an ongoing crisis with no obvious end date and fewer tools left in their toolbox every day.

All over the country, various jurisdictions are reimposing restrictions they tried in the spring, but it’s not clear that’s a real solution. While some states that initially imposed fewer restrictions have seen a spike in cases, so too have states that imposed more sweeping restrictions early in the pandemic. These measures might be effective as a short-term containment strategy, especially in response to specific, local outbreaks, but they aren’t a real, long-term solution.

When Janet Mills initially imposed her sweeping, statewide stay-at-home order, it seemed as if sudden, decisive action could prevent calamity. The same was true for Congress, which readily agreed to enormous aid packages with wide bipartisan support to prop up the ailing economy. This appeared to be the sort of typical, short-term problem that could be addressed with major actions, like a terrorist attack or a flood.

Sadly, that hasn’t been the case, with either the pandemic itself or the ongoing economic downturn caused by it. While the early restrictions and the stimulus packages might well have saved the state and the country from an even greater disaster, it feels as if they only delayed the inevitable. That helps to explain not only why Mills has been more reluctant to impose additional restrictions, but also why Congress has failed to come to agreement on another stimulus package: It’s harder for Americans to see an endgame. Even with the prospect of a vaccine on the horizon, it’s unlikely to be widely available for many months.

Given that, as the state and federal government decide what to do, they have to make sure that they don’t simply repeat the same things they did earlier this year and expect it to work this time, either to save the economy or to contain the virus. Endless bailouts won’t fix the economy, and endless restrictions won’t stop the pandemic. It’s time to try something new.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: jimfossel

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