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The 10th Amendment protects state powers and puts a hamper on presidential powers. Here’s how the fight for control is playing out today.

USA TODAY

Many believe the government has done well in how it has addressed the coronavirus threat. But examples of poor judgment abound.

The government response to the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the use of unprecedented, or at least rarely exercised, emergency powers. Some say this shows how the government can use its authority to solve problems, but in some cases, it is also a reminder of the truth of President Ronald Reagan’s “most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” 

Absurd examples of government overreach abound. A former police officer in Colorado was arrested for playing catch with his daughter in a virtually empty park. A man was dragged off a bus in Philadelphia for not wearing a mask. A paddleboarder was arrested in Malibu, California, for refusing to vacate the ocean. And though these people are being arrested “to save lives,” other jurisdictions are freeing convicts to protect them from the virus.

Officials in San Clemente, California, were so vexed by skateboarders shredding at a local skate park that they dumped piles of sand into it, a significant expense in these times of budget shortages. But dirt bikers took the opportunity to engage in some civilly disobedient stunt riding, then helped dig the park out for the skateboarders. Dirt biker Connor Ericsson summed up his view of the city’s bid to enforce social distancing: “It’s a big joke.”

Apparently, what’s good for us isn’t always good for our leaders

Some leaders understand the need for shared suffering in an emergency less than others. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot provided a great moment in bad optics when she defended a statewide order that closed hair salons by telling people, “Getting your roots done is not essential,” and then went right out and had her hair trimmed. She defended her “let them eat Clairol” moment by saying, “I’m on national media, and I’m out in the public eye.” Maybe not after the next election.

Other politicians seem to think that emergency powers are an unlimited form of fiat that allows them to do virtually anything. Case in point, Greg Fischer, Mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, who banned drive-in church services for Easter, threatened those who assembled anyway with police harassment and encouraged citizens to rat out neighbors who decided to render unto God rather than unto Caesar.

Federal Judge Justin Walker intervened and granted a temporary restraining order against the city. The judge wrote that criminalizing Easter was something “this court never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps the pages of The Onion,” and that the mayor’s “stunning” decision was “ ‘beyond all reason’ unconstitutional.” 

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Then there are examples of obviously bad public policy, such a New York, New Jersey and California (although California later backed off) ordering nursing homes to accept people recovering from coronavirus as a means of easing demands on hospital beds. But since elderly populations are the most at-risk for contracting serious cases of the disease and at highest risk of death, you have to wonder how utilitarian bureaucratic thinking canceled out common sense.

Inconsistently applied principles

We are relying on government to determine what businesses and activities are “essential” and what are not, and the results vary state by state. Those who sell food, most household supplies, gasoline and health-related goods generally make the cut. Liquor stores are generally considered essential, except in Pennsylvania. Marijuana shops are mostly open. Many gun stores are, too, and sales are booming. Golfing is allowed in Arizona, because it pretty much mandates social distance. And florists are considered essential in Delaware, because people need to keep their spirits up. Yet every business is essential to the people who own them and those who work there, and the longer these restrictions last, the more jobs and businesses will simply vanish.

HOTLINE: Share your coronavirus story

Some argue that this crisis provides valuable lessons in the ability of government to solve our problems. Others look longingly to the Chinese model of social control as a useful template. But the reason we can put up with these restrictions at all is because we know they are temporary. This crisis is not normal, despite how it feels after a month, and cannot make extreme levels of government control acceptable as an everyday thing.

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People understand that the pandemic has forced this situation on them and are doing their best to cope, but they also want their lives back. As the crisis begins to abate, politicians should think less about ways to keep people apart and more about bringing Americans back together.

James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive,” has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins

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