How Are Curfews Helpful During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

By Jamie GreysonLast Updated Jan 29, 2021 1:14:53 AM ET
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The outdoor patio at Rocco’s in West Hollywood, California, remains open a few hours before a COVID-19 curfew that closed LA County restaurants in November 2020. Credit: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

For nearly a year, state and local officials have tried to find ways to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus without instituting long-term full lockdown measures. There are, of course, a few exceptions to that mindset in the U.S. Notably, San Francisco, California, has erred on the side of caution. On March 11, the city banned public gatherings of 1,000 people or more; two days later, gatherings of 100 or more people were banned; and by March 16, a shelter-in-place order, effective March 17 at midnight, was announced for six Bay Area counties.

Although San Francisco never faced the kinds of COVID-19 surges places like New York and Seattle did during the spring and summer, the city remained cautious. Over the summer, its phased reopening — first, non-essential medical services, outdoor dining and so on — started and stuttered several times. By fall, San Franciscans could head to indoor salons and, with limited capacities and mask mandates in place, eating at restaurants was a possibility — but the holidays threw a wrench into things. To mitigate the risks associated with holiday shopping, travel and dining, the city reinstated a stay-at-home order, further limiting retail shopping.

Does a More Cautious Approach Work When It Comes to Sheltering in Place?

While not a full-fledged lockdown, San Francisco’s cautious approach and reliance on shelter-in-place mandates has helped to flatten the curve and keep folks safe. Since March, San Francisco County has reported 30,877 cases and 297 deaths; meanwhile, in Southern California, Los Angeles County has reported 1.09 million cases and 15,897 deaths over the same period of time. While Los Angeles County started out taking a similarly cautious approach, it continued to keep retail stores, shopping centers and restaurants open, even over the holidays.

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People sitting in socially distanced circles at San Francisco’s Alamo Square Park in June 2020. Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Of course, as infectious disease epidemiologist Dr. Anne Rimoin noted on NPR’s On Point, Los Angeles County is the most populous county in the nation with "so many essential workers and great disparity…[and] overcrowded housing," all of which provide more opportunities for the virus to spread. All of this to say, staying at home, and away from communal spaces, works, but that doesn’t mean it's a reality — or even an option — for many Americans. Which begs the question: If state and local lockdowns have proved helpful, what does that say about the effectiveness of curfews?

Why Are State and Local Officials Ordering Curfews?

In comparing counties as vastly different as Los Angeles and San Francisco, it’s important to recognize that doing so isn’t always wise. After all, both areas have such vastly different epidemiological landscapes. Nonetheless, we see similar trends in other cities, counties and countries that err on the side of caution — the side of sheltering in place, lockdowns and curfews.

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A municipality worker empties the public bins in a deserted la Place Saint Pierre in the city of Toulouse, France, on January 16, 2021, during the nationwide curfew that aims to curb the spread of COVID-19. Credit: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

That is, countries like Australia and New Zealand, which implemented strict stay-at-home and curfew measures in addition to hotel quarantine procedures for those who are entering the countries, have very few cases of COVID-19 at all now. Additionally, in French cities, from Paris and Marseille to Lyon and Toulouse, curfews instituted in October run from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily, ensuring that upwards of 20 million people stay home and avoid non-essential travel, outings and gatherings.

Stateside, officials on both sides of the aisle have implemented curfews throughout the duration of the pandemic. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo instated a curfew that forced bars, restaurants and gyms to close by 10 p.m.; in Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine has stood by a statewide curfew, which, for now, runs from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.; and, in San Francisco, Mayor London Breed has continued to limit nonessential business operation and gatherings by maintaining a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew approach, even though California Governor Gavin Newsom recently lifted the statewide stay-at-home and curfew measures.

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Have Curfews Helped Mitigate the Spread of COVID-19?

Clearly, curfews are popular among officials, but why? Well, the purpose behind curfews is to limit nonessential travel and outings and curb social gatherings, where social distancing and mask wearing might not be adhered to. In many ways, it’s a middle-ground approach: It’s not disrupting folks’ lives like a full-on, community-wide lockdown would, but it’s still reducing the spread of the virus.

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As a sign flashes curfew warnings, Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies and California National Guard block Santa Monica Boulevard at La Brea Avenue leading into West Hollywood on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. Credit: Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

On the other hand, is seeking a middle-ground solution really just a more diplomatic way of saying curfews are half measures? Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, told The New York Times that curfews likely have a "modest impact" and that they are potentially most impactful when "considered as part of a whole series of interventions."

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In that same Times article, Dr. Gregg Gonsalves, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, had a more blunt reply, calling curfews "crude, inelegant instrument[s]," largely because they are one factor — one simple factor — in addressing an extremely complex issue. If curfews help cut down on social gatherings, then states across the country will most likely continue to enforce them. And even if it’s difficult to ascertain whether there’s a direct correlation between curfews and less COVID-19 spread — after all, there are so many variables — it’s clear that every bit of social distancing and staying at home helps.