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Thomas Gallatin / Mar. 23, 2020

China Virus: A Threat to Liberty?

Several state and city authorities have taken advantage of the pandemic to impose their will.

How far can government go in limiting our liberty by invoking emergency powers? At what point has the state outstripped our constitutional protections and become authoritarian? When does the sacrifice of our individual rights in the name of “safety” or “security” yield neither?

The China Virus pandemic has made these theoretical concerns a reality. On the one hand, the threat posed by the highly contagious virus demands widespread action from all Americans. Public warnings and calls for isolation and self-quarantine have proven effective. Yet not all members of the public heeded the instructions, as evidenced by spring-break partiers on the beaches in Florida — at least until Florida’s governor finally closed the beaches.

Several state and local governments have issued mandatory isolation directives, including the closing of restaurants, bars, and other private business open to public gatherings.

On Thursday evening, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the state’s 40 million residents to stay home indefinitely, allowing for only essential trips out to grocery stores, banks, laundromats, food banks, and take-out restaurants. California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy wondered if Newsom “consulted with a lot of experts before he decided to shut down 12% of the nation’s population.”

Following Newsom’s lead, on Friday New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order “mandating that 100% of [the] workforce must stay home, excluding essential services.” While the order excluded “pharmacies, grocery stores and others,” Cuomo warned that his order “will be enforced.” He stated, “Your actions can affect my health. That’s where we are.” But isn’t that always the case? Furthermore, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that a “shelter-in-place” order may be coming soon.

Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Ohio have also ordered varying degrees of shutdown, while Philadelphia, St. Louis, Kansas City, and several counties around the country have done likewise.

Perhaps most alarming, Champaign, Illinois, Mayor Deborah Frank Feinen banned the sale of firearms and ammunition after declaring a state of emergency due to the China Virus. And her reason for suspending the citizenry’s Second Amendment rights? To “protect the welfare and safety of our community,” said the mayor’s communication director.

But what about the fundamental human right of self-defense? This is the type of heavy-handed overreach that we must always be vigilant against. As Founder Patrick Henry warned, “Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect every one who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force.”

By all means, we should take seriously the public health threat posed by the China Virus. But let us also remember that the greater threat may be in the damage done to our individual Liberty.

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