OPINION

Rampell Column: Where's that nanny state when you need it?

Catherine Rampell
Washington Post

Sometimes government must be willing to play bad cop. Now -- when the United States desperately needs more and stricter coronavirus vaccination requirements -- is one of those times.

Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are spiking. Nearly a fifth of Americans say they're unlikely to ever get vaccinated against the coronavirus.The risk that more contagious variants will develop grows each day. In this environment, public officials and employers have offered tons of incentives to entice the vaccine-resistant to get shots -- everything from cash prizes to vacation time to Los Angeles Lakers tickets.

Such carrots don't seem to be working, though.

Some companies have also announced what appear to be sticks: requirements for workers (and sometimes customers) to get the shot or get the boot. But despite fawning media coverage, these moves also seem unlikely to change much behavior; firms mandating vaccinations are by and large doing this for populations that are already vaccinated. In fact, some companies (Walmart, Uber) are requiring inoculation only for workers likely to have already received shots, while exempting those more likely to be hesitant.

Companies are choosing vaccination policies that reflect the existing preferences of their workforces -- or alternatively, avoiding decisions on mandates entirely -- because managers don't want to alienate anyone. After all, workers are scarce, consumers are mercurial, and vaccines remain polarizing.

That's why we need government to step in. Public officials must be willing to make unpopular, sometimes controversial decisions that take the heat off private industry and protect the public welfare.

That is: We need government to be the fall guy.

Managers, nursing-home administrators, school principals and others merely trying to keep workplaces safe need to be able to plausibly tell anti-vaxxers: "Shucks, if it were up to me, you could take whatever risks you want. Out of my hands though! Big Bad Government says you must be vaccinated to [fill in the blank]."

This is virtually the same situation we were in a year ago -- pre-vaccines -- when private industry was weighing other kinds of safety measures.

Last year, airline executives begged the Trump administration to issue an in-flight mask mandate. Airlines knew mask requirements were necessary. They also knew a unilaterally implemented requirement would make some customers really angry. The Trump administration refused to oblige, but President Joe Biden announced an industry-wide mandate immediately after taking office.

Retailers felt similarly hung out to dry last year. The Retail Industry Leaders Association pleaded in July 2020 for "every governor to require consumers who are not [encumbered] by a medical condition to wear masks when shopping or in public places."

The pandemic is hardly the only time when private industry has begged government to regulate more, not less, and to take discretion away from individual companies. It happens in other situations when firms face polarizing decisions they'd rather punt on.

Facebook is a useful case study.

The social media company has struggled to decide how much mis- and disinformation (about vaccines or otherwise) to remove. And the platform is in a difficult position: Any policy change creates a political firestorm because the left generally wants more content removed, while the right wants less. The company would love to outsource these thorny decisions to Congress; it even sponsored a major ad campaign demanding "updated internet regulations to set clear guidelines for addressing today's toughest challenges."

In general, whatever firms actually ask for, and wherever political fault lines lie, government intervention is most justifiable when inaction would harm innocent bystanders. Think: polluting cars, secondhand smoke, infectious diseases. When it comes to vaccination mandates, though, few officials are willing to stick their necks out.

Yes, California and New York City have announced select vaccination requirements for select industries. In most jurisdictions, though, public officials have been reluctant to endorse mandates. And in a sense, who can blame them? There's an entire political party eager to disingenuously exploit such decisions as evidence of "Big Government" trampling on "freedoms." If some official is willing to fall on their sword to protect public health, a nearby right-wing demagogue will gladly drive the blade deeper.

In some states, Republicans hoping to raise their national profile are even going a step further by preemptively tying the hands of local officials and private-sector executives who are willing to make difficult decisions to safeguard the pub;lic. As infections rise, these decisions look increasingly foolish. Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson recently admitted that he regretted signing a law blocking school districts from requiring masks; he expressed gratitude that another public official -- in this case, a judge -- had bailed him out.

"Thank goodness," Hutchinson said Sunday, that "the court stepped in and held that as unconstitutional."

Businesses passing the buck to politicians; politicians passing the buck to judges. Where's that "nanny state" when you need it?

Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.