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The Communitarian Revolt Against Government Lockdowns

Why some minority groups are leading the charge

Orthodox Jews protest New York City mayor Bill de Blasio's coronavirus lockdowns / Getty Images
• March 12, 2021 5:00 am

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On July 9, Anthony J. Finkel helped New York City mayor Bill de Blasio paint "Black Lives Matter" on the street in front of Trump Tower. Finkel, 31, a black small-business owner who volunteered for Obama in both 2008 and 2012, wore a mask that read "BLACK LIVES MATTER BROOKLYN" and appeared in media photographs alongside de Blasio and Rev. Al Sharpton. It was the height of the George Floyd protests.

But on Nov. 3, Election Day, Finkel cast his ballot for President Donald Trump. Among the reasons for his choice, the founder of DPH Property Maintenance told the Washington Free Beacon: New York City's draconian lockdowns, which had decimated neighborhoods and driven their denizens toward suicide.

Trump "addressed the mental health issues associated with the lockdowns, the increasing divorce rates, and increases in substance abuse," Finkel said, emphasizing the enforced isolation New York had experienced. "Lockdowns have sucked the joy out of people's lives."

A kaleidoscope of Americans share Finkel's frustrations. From Orthodox Jews to Cuban Christians to Muslim immigrants, people of all races and religions have soured on social distancing—especially when it disrupts the social rituals their cultures prescribe. Members of these groups typically wear masks and support some restrictions on personal freedom; what bothers them is the way lockdowns have hollowed out communities, as well as the elevation of safety over society.

The anger is especially acute among minorities, who tend to place a greater value on communal gatherings than secular white Americans. Religious Jews require at least 10 people to be physically present for public worship, and meetups of extended family are an important part of Latino culture.

"I love the fact that we have this ‘don't tread on me' mentality" in America, said Sergio Sanchez, 55, a Cuban-American educator and small-business owner in Miami, "but there's a basic need to be social. We were created as social beings."

It's a common sentiment among lockdown skeptics, one that complicates the dominant narrative of the nation's COVID response. Since the pandemic began, critics have blamed its trajectory on American individualism. But interviews with a broad swath of lockdown skeptics suggest that the opposition comes from some of the least individualistic people in the country—less individualistic, at any rate, than the liberals locking them down.

Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has lived in the Middle East, said this wasn't a coincidence. Liberals embraced lockdowns, Hamid suggested, because lockdowns promised individuals control over their own mortality—a concept foreign to many religious people, including Muslims. "Anecdotally, Arabs and Muslims I know in the U.S. have generally not been COVID hardliners," he said.  "There's a notion in Islam that ‘your book is written,' that some things are in the hands of God." But among secular people, "there's a desire for control, and a fear of losing control, which we see on the left side of the political spectrum."

These philosophical divides sometimes track racial ones. COVID hardliners—-especially those who shame others for their lack of social distancing—are "primarily upper-class elite white people," Hamid noted. "There's a sort of white privilege to COVID shaming."

That privilege is cultural as well as economic: When wealthy white liberals work from home, they are rarely sharing space with extended family, whom they are not expected to see more than a few times a year.

Non-white families have more demanding expectations. "The importance of family gatherings for the Hispanic community probably does outweigh the fear of the pandemic," Sanchez said, noting that an elderly woman on his street has hosted unmasked relatives. And intergenerational households, which are common in both Muslim and Hispanic communities, may drive a "more the merrier" attitude, Hamid speculated. In 2020, Donald Trump gained ground with both groups.

If lockdowns saved lives, they put civil society on life support. Religious institutions were especially hard hit, as donations dried up under the financial strain of the virus, but they were far from the only casualties. Family-owned businesses have closed too, Finkel said, including some that were mainstays of the Big Apple. "I've never seen this much graffiti in my lifetime," he added. There's been a "slow eradication of the quality of life."

Lockdown skeptics aren't always libertarian, in other words. Many are focused less on individual rights than on the character of society, and others are focused equally on both. "I don't want to rely on the government to instruct me how to go about my daily life," Finkel said. But he also doesn't want Americans vilified for "visiting their friends and family."

Compounding this communitarian revolt have been the bans on religious gatherings, for which Zoom is a poor substitute. In some traditions, it is even forbidden. "Orthodox Judaism has no place for prayer over Zoom," Yosef Hershkop, 30, who runs an urgent care center in New York City, told the Free Beacon. "Especially on Shabbat." Frum Jews like Hershkop consider it a violation of biblical law to use electricity during the sabbath.

At the start of the pandemic, Hershkop said, most Jewish schools and synagogues shut down voluntarily. The Orthodox donned masks, moved services outside, and generally complied with the restrictions. Indoor activities were capped at 10 or so people, with plenty of room for social distancing.

But resistance mounted as the state began targeting Jewish institutions that were already following strict rules—rules that didn't seem to apply to everyone. "How did we allow packed international flights without COVID tests but completely shut all synagogues, even those large enough for social distancing?" Hershkop asked.

Skepticism about shutdowns doesn't mean skepticism about the virus. Though some commentators have alleged that "misinformation" drove reckless behavior in Hispanic neighborhoods, none of the Latinos interviewed by the Free Beacon found this allegation convincing. "People know what's going on," one San Diego resident said.

As a result, many of them have taken precautions. Sanchez's mother has been careful, he stressed, as have many other elderly Hispanics in Miami. Finkel has reduced the size of his maintenance crews and instructed them to wear masks and gloves. Hershkop has configured his care center to make COVID tests safer and more efficient.

But lockdowns are a question of values, not facts. So, in a diverse and multicultural society, it is not surprising that people disagree about which restrictions were worth it. Nor is it surprising that ethnic and religious minorities have chafed at the individualism imposed on them by public health professionals, who, the Lancet noted in October, "are still predominantly white."

What's more surprising is how well some of these communities have done despite their resistance to lockdowns. Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where many Orthodox Jews live, has seen fewer deaths from coronavirus than its surrounding borough or New York City as a whole. Ironically, Hershkop said, the cultural characteristics that hurt Hasidic Jews early in the pandemic might have helped them later on.

"The Orthodox Jewish Community has a lot to teach America," he told the Free Beacon. The Orthodox organized blood drives for convalescent plasma and helped their neighbors find monoclonal antibody therapies. The COVID plasma initiative, launched last April by three Orthodox Jews, has received endorsements from Johns Hopkins, the Mayo Clinic, the New York Blood Drive, and other prestigious medical associations.

The virus may transit better in tight-knit communities, Hershkop acknowledged. But tight-knit communities may be better at treating the virus.

Update 10/12/21, 1:45 PM: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Sergio Sanchez's occupation.