Tribune Editorial: When people show no sense, government must step in

(Scott G Winterton | Deseret News,pool) Governor Gary R Herbert, speaks as he is joined with State Epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn and Richard Saunders director of the Utah Department of Health join together in announcing major changes to UtahÕs COVID-19 guidance system, at a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020.

“If men were angels,” James Madison wrote, “no government would be necessary.”

If he were around today, the primary framer of the U.S. Constitution might say something more like “If people had a lick of common sense, or the least bit of concern for one another, no government action to slow the spread of deadly pandemics would be needed.”

But, as those who run the government of Utah are ever-so-slowly realizing, far too few of us will listen to reason or take even small inconvenient steps to save the lives of others. Especially when our government officials are far too chicken-hearted to, well, govern.

Even in the face of that realization, the actions announced Tuesday by Gov. Gary Herbert amount to too little, too late. Though they are more than nothing.

The governor admitted that not enough of us have paid heed to his previous efforts to encourage such things as wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings. Herbert scrapped his dial of many colors, the one that was supposed to explain to people the differing levels of caution appropriate for places where COVID-19 was spreading at greater or lesser rates.

He replaced it with a three-level grid of actions to be taken, depending on the rate of new cases reported in a county and the statewide number of hospitalizations. The rules include what amounts to a mask requirement for all but eight of the state’s 29 counties until Oct. 29, as well as limits on gatherings of more than 10 people and an order that household groups visiting restaurants or sporting events and such stay at least 6 feet away from other such groups.

The new rules stand to be more useful than the old rules. But the continuing flaw in all of this is the almost apologetic — or, perhaps more accurately, wimpy — ways in which they are stated.

“Our announcement of this new system without your involvement is practically nothing,” said Richard Saunders, interim director of the Utah Department of Health.

House Speaker Brad Wilson said the new system “places responsibility for our state’s response with each of us individually.”

To a degree, that’s true of all laws, social norms and human decency. If people only did the right thing out of fear of government action, there would be no safety, no civilization.

But why treat a deadly pandemic with less concern — less government action — than we treat all the other aspects of life where laws and government are there to protect us? Why not just count on personal responsibility and humanity to get us to stop at red lights, drive at safe speeds through residential neighborhoods, not drive while drunk or abstain from armed robbery?

Laws that limit access to alcohol, for example, are often justified with the statement “If it saves one life.”

A real mask mandate, especially if it were issued months ago and carried penalties for defiance, is likely to have saved hundreds of lives.

The void that has been left by a lack of leadership at both the state and national levels has been filled, in public discourse and social media, by foolishness and falsehoods about hoaxes, quack cures and irrational calls for armed rebellion.

People who think that they risk only their own health when refusing to wear masks or keep their distance are both ignorant and selfish to a level that is almost criminal.

And that’s how our government, which exists to protect the common good, should treat them.