Enforcing Social Distancing & Wearing Masks

COVID 19 Open SignIn order to combat the spread of COVID-19, people are making many changes in their habits and routines. Two central recommendations of public health officials are that people remain socially distant1 by staying six or more feet from people and avoiding non-essential trips outside the home, and that people wear masks when in public.2 This has raised questions about the government’s authority to impose social distancing and mask restrictions, as well as the rights and responsibilities of business owners to protect their employees and customers.

In some cities and towns, the government has attempted to enforce social distancing and mask wearing with sometimes troubling results. For example, in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. for several weeks, police arrested at least 40 people for failing to wear masks or practice social distancing. Of those 40 people, 35 were black, reigniting concerns over racial disparities in the policing.3 As city officials in New York and other communities consider new ways to enforce public health regulations, some cities try novel approaches. For example, in Clearwater, Florida, the city is employing civilian ambassadors to walk the beaches and remind people of social distancing guidelines.4

WATCH: Americans Celebrate Memorial Day Amid Coronavirus Pandemic (CBS News)

Many people are upset by the social distancing guidelines and efforts to enforce them. There have been anti-shutdown protests in many states across the country and around the world5, including armed protests at the state capitol in Michigan.6 While such protests are constitutionally protected, the very act of protesting may be spreading the virus.7 Those who are upset at efforts to enforce public health measures have come into conflict with people, such as grocery store, retail, and restaurant employees who are responsible for enforcing their employers’ policies.

WATCH: Face Mask Rules Lead to Violent Confrontations

These challenges are straining our society in new ways, raising questions about the authority of government, the rights of individuals, and the meaning of the common good. In a future post, we will examine the ways in which the definition of freedom is being contested in these times.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some reasons that people might have to insist on not wearing masks in public places?
  2. Should stores and other establishments be allowed to ban people who do not wear masks or follow social distancing guidelines?
  3. How should local governments encourage people to follow public health guidelines? Should police be involved to issue fines and make arrests? If not, why not? What other mechanisms do communities have?
  4. What role do we all have in preventing the spread of the virus?
  5. Should governments have the authority to enforce public health guidelines? Why or why not?

Further Resources:

  • Can businesses refuse to serve customers who don’t wear masks? (from KIRO-7, Seattle’s ABC News affiliate)
  • “6 Feet People!!!!” When Petty Neighbors Become Social Distancing Police (from Slate)
  • Top 10 Excuses Offered For Not Wearing Masks Despite Covid-19 Coronavirus (from Forbes.com)
  • Reopening Sparks The Debate About Who Should Enforce Social-Distancing Rules (from NPR)



Featured Image Credit: Mike Hewitt, Getty Images via Forbes.com
[1] Centers for Disease Control: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/social-distancing.html
[2] Centers for Disease Control: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html
[3] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/07/nyregion/nypd-social-distancing-race-coronavirus.html
[4] National Public Radio: https://www.npr.org/2020/05/15/857144397/police-back-off-from-social-distancing-enforcement
[5] Vox.com: https://www.vox.com/2020/5/20/21263919/anti-lockdown-protests-coronavirus-germany-brazil-uk-chile
[6] BBC.com: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52496514
[7] The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/18/lockdown-protests-spread-coronavirus-cellphone-data#maincontent


Executive Privilege and the Supreme Court

privilege and the supreme courtLast week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases involving President Donald Trump’s tax returns and financial records, Trump v. Mazars and Trump v. Deutsche Bank. During the 2016 election, then-candidate Trump broke with tradition and refused to release many of his financial records and tax returns. The president is suing his accountants and banks to prevent them from releasing his personal financial information to Congress. President Trump claims that executive privilege protects him from releasing any of this information to Congress; attorneys for the House of Representatives argue that executive privilege does not apply here.1 So, what is executive privilege and why is it in dispute?

Executive Privilege: Defined as Being Ill-Defined

Executive privilege is commonly defined as “shielding the president from having to disclose some internal executive branch communications.”2 However, as soon as anyone tries to define what communications count as privileged, there is often disagreement, some of which is likely political in nature and depends on the party occupying the executive branch.

The system of checks and balances makes the issue murkier. Since executive privilege is usually cited in disputes between two branches of government, the legislative and executive, the judicial branch tries to avoid weighing in so as not to favor one branch over the other. As a result, most guidance on executive privilege comes not from judicial rulings but from Department of Justice memoranda, which can be interpreted differently and modified with each new administration.3

Historical Use of Executive Privilege

The two most famous cases dealing with executive privilege are United States v. Nixon and Clinton v. Jones. In Nixon, President Richard Nixon claimed that executive privilege protected him from having to release the Watergate tapes to the special prosecutor. In a 8-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled against the president on the basis that criminal activity was under investigation, which directly spoke to the president’s duties as chief executive.4

In Clinton, executive privilege was invoked to stop President Bill Clinton from having to testify in relation to a sexual harassment accusation brought against him from before he was president. The Court also ruled against Clinton and established that activities prior to assuming the office of president were not protected.5

What Is In Dispute This Time?

If the Supreme Court has already ruled that activity prior to assuming the office of president is not protected, then why is there an unsettled question in these cases? In both United States v. Nixon and Clinton v. Jones, the legislative branch was not directly involved.

President Trump’s attorneys and other legal scholars argue that it is inappropriate for the judicial branch to rule on a dispute between two other co-equal branches of government, and that executive privilege is necessary to prevent Congress from burdening the president with legal battles. They argue that it is unclear why Congress is seeking the president’s financial information; particularly in the absence of a criminal charge, there is no standing to compel the president to release the information. Finally, they argue that the motives of the Democrat-controlled House are political, and that the chamber seeks to compel the president to release his records specifically to hurt his chances of reelection in November.6

The case being made by the House is that executive privilege has already been ruled as not absolute, that it only protects information related to the performance of presidential responsibilities, and that if the Supreme Court were to rule in favor of President Trump, it would unacceptably limit the oversight duties that Congress is supposed to have over the executive branch as part of the system of checks and balances. The House has also argued that the records it is seeking do not belong to the president but to Mazars and Deutsche Bank, which have both agreed to obey the subpoena.7

Discussion Questions

  1. Should there be a law requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns and financial statements?
  2. Should the president have special protections, like executive privilege, that are not shared by individuals outside of the executive branch?
  3. What, if any, information should a president be allowed to keep private?
  4. Some argue that the importance and the highly political nature of the president’s role necessitate special privileges and protections, so political opponents cannot unfairly prevent the president from his/her duties. Others argue that for the very same reasons, the president should be subject to a higher standard and have the same protections as, or even fewer protections than, average citizens. What do you believe?



Featured Image Credit: Old Town Crier: https://oldtowncrier.com/2019/11/30/executive-privilege-and-impeachment/
[1] Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/05/11/congress-trump-could-both-be-losers-supreme-court-this-week/
[2] SCOTUSblog: https://www.scotusblog.com/2019/10/executive-privilege-congress-subpoena-power-and-the-courts-a-brief-overview-of-a-complex-topic/
[3] Ibid.
[4] Portland Press Herald: https://www.pressherald.com/2020/05/13/the-conversation-historic-power-struggle-between-trump-and-congress-reviewed-by-supreme-court/
[5] SCOTUSblog: https://www.scotusblog.com/2019/10/executive-privilege-congress-subpoena-power-and-the-courts-a-brief-overview-of-a-complex-topic/
[6] Lawfare: https://www.lawfareblog.com/oral-argument-summary-supreme-court-hears-trump-financial-documents-cases
[7] Ibid.


Racial Equity and COVID-19

Virus Outbreak RaceThe ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is stressing our health care system, our economy, and parents trying to teach their children at home. It is also highlighting significant racial disparities in access to quality health care.

According to an April survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, Black and Hispanic people are more likely than white people to know someone who has been seriously impacted by the virus.1 In New York City, the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States for several weeks, the mortality rate from the virus was twice as high among Black and Hispanic people than the rate among white people.2

There have been similar patterns in Chicago,3 Milwaukee,4 and Louisiana.5 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights several major reasons for the disparities. These include:

  1. Neighborhood and Physical Environment: Members of racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in communities with less access to groceries and other basic goods, and therefore have to rely on public transportation. They are also more likely to live in densely populated communities and in multi-generational households.
  2. Work Circumstances: In major urban centers, “essential” workers are more likely to be members of racial and ethnic minorities. People who work in these settings have more chances to be exposed to COVID-19 because these types of jobs require frequent or close contact with the public, involve activities that cannot be done from home, and may lack benefits such as paid sick days.
  3. Underlying Health and Health Care Conditions: People from racial and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by lack of access to quality health care, health insurance, and/or linguistically and culturally responsive health care.6

Learn more about the connection between residential segregation and health

In addition to these structural issues that the CDC highlights, some argue that racism itself is partially to blame. A recent study indicates that racism in medical school may influence whether newly graduated doctors go to work in underserved communities.7 Furthermore, microaggressions—subtle expressions of racism and bias that people of color face in their daily lives—lead to stress and have an impact on health outcomes, according to recent research.8

Clearly, the disparities that we are seeing in the impacts of COVID-19 are not new. However, it is possible that the pandemic will give these issues new attention and help them gain an increased sense of urgency. The roots of this problem run deep and connect to many other issues facing the United States.

Discussion Questions

  1. Did it surprise you to learn that the health impacts of COVID-19 are different by race? Why or why not?
  2. How high a priority should it be to address these issues during the outbreak?
  3. How high a priority should it be after the outbreak?
  4. What kinds of solutions would you propose to address the issues described here?




[1] Pew Research Center: https://www.people-press.org/2020/04/14/health-concerns-from-covid-19-much-higher-among-hispanics-and-blacks-than-whites/?utm_source=AdaptiveMailer&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20-04-14%20COVID%20Personal%20Health_GEN%20DISTRO&org=982&lvl=100&ite=5966&lea=1326331&ctr=0&par=1&trk=
[2] New York City Health Department: https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/imm/covid-19-deaths-race-ethnicity-04082020-1.pdf
[3] National Public Radio: https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/04/06/828303894/in-chicago-covid-19-is-hitting-the-black-community-hard
[4] U.S. News & World Report: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/new-york/articles/2020-03-27/milwaukees-black-community-hit-hard-by-coronavirus
[5] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/06/health/us-coronavirus-updates-monday/index.html
[6] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/racial-ethnic-disparities/index.html
[7] The Nation’s Health: http://thenationshealth.aphapublications.org/content/49/8/E30
[8] Center for Health Journalism: https://www.centerforhealthjournalism.org/2017/11/08/how-racism-and-microaggressions-lead-worse-health


Calm or Chaos: The Role of the Media During a Crisis

Lockdown Newspaper HeadlineAs the novel coronavirus continues to dominate the headlines, the American public is facing an onslaught of information about the pandemic. Social and traditional media are covering developments, spreading opinions, and broadcasting statistics about COVID-19. There has been a strong association between coronavirus media coverage and an increase in public attention on the virus itself and in web searches for such terms as “N95” face masks.1 Media is playing a significant role in shaping public behavior around COVID-19, so as we head into the next phase of the pandemic, journalists and the general public are being forced to consider what role the media should assume moving forward.

Some people complain that the media is biased and that it is difficult to find neutral sources of information.In addition, misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic continues to run rampant on social media.3 This climate of mistrust and misinformation can lead to real-world problems: empty shelves, shortages of vital goods, and racism towards people of Asian descent.4

Some say that the 24-hour news cycle is becoming a place where too much information, delivered all at once, creates challenging threads for the American public to untangle in order to get an accurate understanding of the progression of the virus.5 This cycle has the negative effect of drowning out the voices and advice of public health officials.6 There are also some news sources that characterize potential vaccines and treatments for the virus in ways that create a false sense of security.7

However, there are journalists who have done crucial reporting on what President Donald Trump has said, and how, at times, his comments have contrasted with comments from experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. There has been analysis that puts U.S. news in the context of the greater global outbreak of the virus.8 And there has been news that criticizes the U.S. response to the coronavirus and offers solutions on the basis of what other countries have done and what leading experts and academics recommend. However, the problem still remains: there is no certainty during this time due to a lack of discrete medical analysis, medical testing, and length of experience with COVID-19.

We also see some media coverage that aims to unify the country during the pandemic. News stories and op-eds have called for citizens to stay home, volunteer, and donate to organizations that support front-line health care workers and those in need.9 Local news agencies, individuals, and even TV show franchises have taken on the task of inspiring national unity and promoting hope, including former President George W. Bush and the cast of “Parks and Recreation,” showing that “Americans across the country are making their own decisions for our collective well-being.”10

Some news sources and media outlets play these roles simultaneously, sending mixed signals and making it difficult to get the most accurate information and analysis. Scientists and experts are also struggling with this phenomenon, because they are still trying to learn and make sense of something they have never seen before.11 This requires all of us to be critical consumers of media; it also raises questions about the responsibilities and roles of news outlets.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is your level of engagement with the news and media during the COVID-19 pandemic?
  2. What do you believe should be the role of the media during a crisis?
  3. Do you believe that national media outlets should have coordinated with each other, as well as with the federal government, to have a similar targeted response to covering COVID-19?
  4. During a crisis, should the media trust and amplify messages from government officials, or be skeptical of those messages?
  5. With the pandemic taking place during the build-up toward a presidential election, do you believe that COVID-19 coverage is being heavily influenced by the current political climate of the United States? Why or why not?

Other Resources:



Featured Image Credit: Dan Simon/CNN
[1] Real Clear Politics: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2020/03/02/media_coverage_and_coronavirus_panic_what_the_numbers_show_142539.html
[2] Gallup: https://news.gallup.com/poll/225755/americans-news-bias-name-neutral-source.aspx
[3] PBS Newshour: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/the-dangerous-global-flood-of-misinformation-surrounding-covid-19
[4] The Bulletin: https://thebulletin.org/2020/03/coronavirus-coverage-where-the-media-have-gone-wrong/
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] The Bulletin: https://thebulletin.org/2020/03/coronavirus-coverage-where-the-media-have-gone-wrong/
[8] U.S. News & World Report: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2020-02-07/how-the-global-media-covered-stories-about-the-coronavirus-outbreak
[9] Real Clear Politics: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2020/03/02/media_coverage_and_coronavirus_panic_what_the_numbers_show_142539.html
[10] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/03/us/politics/george-w-bush-coronavirus-unity.html; Variety: https://variety.com/2020/tv/news/parks-and-rec-reunion-special-covid-19-1234588655/; The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/inspiring-galvanizing-beautiful-spirit-2020/608308/
[11] Vox: https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/4/13/21214114/media-coronavirus-pandemic-coverage-cdc-should-you-wear-masks