The shelter-in-place directives that states and cities have imposed since March haven’t come close to ending the coronavirus pandemic, but they have at least helped stabilize the situation, slowing the rate of infections to give medical professionals a fighting chance against the deadly virus. Despite widespread testing lacking, and with a proven treatment and vaccine still a ways off, several states have begun lifting or relaxing the social distancing restrictions—and the White House is set to pull back on federal guidelines as well, with Donald Trump deeming it time for the United States, the global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, to “open big.” Aside from a smattering of protesters, though, most Americans—even in spite of economic hardship—would rather keep the lockdowns in place.
But you know who isn’t most Americans? Elon Musk. The eccentric tech entrepreneur this week joined the anti-lockdown chorus, blasting the life-saving measures governments have imposed as “horrible and wrong” and suggesting states are “forcibly imprisoning” residents in their homes. “This is fascist,” the Tesla CEO told investors in an earnings call Wednesday. “This is not democratic. This is not freedom.” “FREE AMERICA NOW!” Musk added in a tweet Wednesday.
Musk’s “FREE AMERICA” missive is reminiscent of Trump recently calling for residents of states like Michigan to “LIBERATE” themselves from what he implied were oppressive restrictions by their Democratic governors. Wealthy business executives, too, have called for employees to go back to work. “We’ll gradually bring those people back and see what happens,” former Wells Fargo CEO Dick Kovacevich told Bloomberg News in March. “Some of them will get sick, some may even die, I don’t know.” Perhaps because such cavalier requests for Americans to sacrifice themselves to COVID to save billionaires’ bottom lines didn’t go over so well, the president and other business leaders have since begun suggesting that it’s not them forcing middle and working class Americans back to their jobs, but something those workers are demanding. “They want to get back to work,” Trump said in an April 21 press briefing. “The country wants to get back to work.” There’s no doubt that Americans are eager to get back to a sense of normalcy; indeed, the ongoing crisis is continuing to inflict widespread economic hardship on the country, putting millions out of work with no obvious end in sight. But polls have consistently shown that most prefer the safety measures remain in place, given the risk of lifting social distancing restrictions before it is safe to do so. Moreover, it’s not necessarily the lockdowns delivering the economic pain—it’s the virus. Without testing, treatment, or a vaccine—or the “miracle” Trump promised would cause COVID to disappear by April—the economy won’t “reopen” with the easing of government directives. Shelter-in-place orders have disrupted Tesla’s operations, but it’s not Musk or other billionaires who’d be putting themselves at risk by getting their businesses moving again. It would be their workers.
Musk’s assessment that shelter-in-place orders are unconstitutional may appeal to the most fervent of the #EndTheLockdown crowd, but it hardly seems sound analysis. As constitutional scholar Bernadette Meyler wrote in the New York Times on Wednesday, the state and local governments that have imposed shelter-in-place orders have legal precedent on their side, with the Supreme Court historically “emphasizing that temporary steps that might otherwise infringe on economic rights may be permissible” in extraordinary situations to keep the public safe. In other words: Asking Americans to stay home in the midst of a pandemic is not, as Musk would have you believe, “fascist.” It would hardly be the only time Musk has been wrong about the pandemic; before calling for the country to be “freed” from state governors, Musk—like Trump—repeatedly downplayed the scope of the crisis, tweeting at one point last month that there would likely be “close to zero new cases in US...by end of April.” As of April 30, there were more than one million confirmed COVID cases in the U.S. and close to 62,000 reported deaths.