At last night’s meeting of the Whitewater Common Council, the council discussed and gave direction to the city attorney to draft an ordinance regulating large gatherings of people on private property during the pandemic. (Updated with video. A revised agenda is available here.) The council plans to meet again on 9.9.20, where they will consider a draft ordinance; they are likely to pass a draft to take effect as quickly as possible thereafter.
A few remarks on the discussion —
1. Ripeness. One sometimes hears that a legal matter is not yet ripe – that is ready and suitable – for adjudication.
There’s no draft yet available, so much of the speculation about what a draft might look like, how it will survive Wisconsin Supreme Court precedent, etc., is yet speculative. There will be a draft presented, presumably, on 9.9.20.
2. Prohibition’s a Strategy When You’ve Nothing Left.
And yet, a draft ordinance, an adopted ordinance, or a litigated ordinance will never matter more than a culture that doesn’t believe in the aims of the ordinance. I supported a mask ordinance, but throughout I have been clear that enforcement of restrictions is likely to be ineffective, no matter how hard one tries.
The city has too many people, and too few officials and employees, to manage a pandemic without widespread cultural cooperation. If enforcement of drinking restrictions is mostly an exercise in herding cats, then limiting the spread of a pandemic at this late stage is like herding cats where some of them are invisible (as asymptomatics).
The impulse toward safety – and preserving a marketplace of myriad daily transactions – is a worthy goal. It’s almost impossible to achieve that goal if residents, themselves, do not support the means to do so.
This is not simply a problem of college students standing too close together. Hundreds of non-student adults in this city have denied the dangers of the pandemic, derided the use of masks, and carried on as though there were no novel coronavirus at all. Federal and state officials have actively encouraged these residents – and millions like them across this continent – to be mask-free ‘warriors’ for ‘re-opening.’
They’ve not achieved a re-opening; they’ve exacerbated society’s ills.
3. Disconnected. This common council no longer has the ability to persuade, and lacks the ability to enforce meaningfully, regulations against residents who’ve stopped caring about council’s authority. One shouldn’t welcome this – and I don’t – but it’s predicable in conditions of malaise.
It’s a problem that has preceded the pandemic, and will likely endure afterward. Past political mistakes and persisting stagnation have greatly limited the range of future government action.
Officials are performing for each other as much as governing the city. That’s why one can say that writing about Whitewater’s politics has significantly shifted from commentary-as-advocacy to commentary-as-narrative.
4. Social Covenant. UW-Whitwater has, and this chancellor has touted, a social covenant directed toward good public health practices. It’s unrealistic to expect – however timely that covenant may be – that it will take hold quickly. Chancellor Dwight Watson, or anyone in his role, would take years to establish a meaningful bond of that kind on campus. His predecessors (Telfer, Kopper) did not shape a university culture that would be receptive to a meaningful social compact of any kind.
A social covenant is more than a few hashtags and purple signs, but there’s no evidence that Watson’s recent predecessors would have grasped as much, and so, even if Watson should one day succeed in establishing a social covenant of any type, that day is years away.