Things are gettin’ a mite testy chez Phil Scott these days. His weekly Covid briefing for September 28 was an exercise in statistical diversion, gaslighting, word salad and straw man punching.
Oh, and the usual journalism FAIL. The reporters get the governor for two hours every week and they rarely take the opportunity to ask probing questions on the biggest immediate challenge we face. The reporting on Scott’s briefings is often more like stenography than journalism. The beginning of this week’s Question Time featured several consecutive questions that weren’t about Covid at all. The end of the sesh came early, after a number of reporters who’d signed up to ask questions decided that, well, actually, they didn’t have anything to ask.
It wasn’t an entirely dismal parade, but it was largely a missed opportunity to quiz the gov and his top officials on, for example, their policy stubbornness, statistical sleight-of-hand, failure to help the schools fight Covid, or the growing chorus of criticism from the medical and public health communities.
There was also, as discussed previously, an almost complete dearth of follow-up when some official evades an inquiry, fumbles an answer, or spews some serious bullshit. Which happens a lot. This is mainly an issue with the format, but it also reflects an unwillingness to abandon prepared questions in favor of follow-up, a lack of advance research, and probably attention spans too short to listen all the way through.
There was one solid journalistic exchange that got a bit too hot for the governor’s taste. It produced a lovely bouquet of evasion, misstatements, verbal stumbles and filibusters. Details after the jump.
As you may recall, Scott has consistently argued against tougher measures because, he says, he’d have to impose a state of emergency to do so.
Well, on Tuesday that balloon got popped.
A reporter (who wasn’t identified so I could understand) asked a very good question. Aren’t there steps that could be taken short of a state of emergency, such as a public health order?
“You could, I suppose,” replied Scott. “We haven’t looked into that. But I think it just leads to more.”
Wait wait wait. YOU HAVEN’T LOOKED INTO THAT???
You haven’t made a thorough search of all possible avenues for fighting Covid? After four-plus years in office, there are areas of gubernatorial power you’re unclear about?
A short while later, mirabile dictu, a reporter followed up on that. Hasn’t the administration, he asked, looked into other measures besides a state of emergency?
Scott tried again. “Well, we know that there can be a health order,” he said. Funny, he didn’t know that a few minutes earlier.
He continued: “But it’s not something we’re interested in doing at this point. I mean, we just think that would lead to other steps that we’re not willing to take right now.”
Again, wait wait wait. A public health order is a gateway policy? It’s the first domino to fall? You start out with a public health order, and pretty soon you’ve declared martial law and the National Guard is mowing down the citizenry?
It was about here that it looked like a little smoke was coming out the guv’s ears, like that android Captain Kirk disabled with the Liar’s Paradox.
Speaking of slippery slopes, the way Scott described a Covid state of emergency made it sound like early-stage Fascism. He was asked why he wouldn’t set benchmark numbers that would trigger a state of emergency, as other states have done.
“if we went back into all of a sudden we flipped the switch and said we need a state of emergency tomorrow, we’re gong to close down this business, we’re going to — these, uh, this sector, we’re going to stop travel, we’re going to take all these, uh, these precautions in order to drive down cases, which we haven’t seen conclusively across some of the states that have been doing this, that they’ve been successful in driving down the cases.”
And there he is, punching a straw man. I don’t think anybody wants to impose harsh restrictions overnight. I don’t think anybody wants draconian measures like closing the borders with no advance warning or planning.
Also, when Scott ponders a state of emergency entirely through the lens of business and tourism, it tells you something about his real priorities. C’mon, it’s almost leaf season! We can’t be shutting down motels and restaurants!
But wait, there’s more!
The word salad continued with Scott explaining that preventing the spread of Covid would be… um… harmful to public health?
“So let’s just say we do [a tate of emergency]. We are going to create more panic, more fear, and, and, and just more apprehension just by doing that. Staying home to stay safe may be one area that may drive down cases, but it’s not healthy. It’s not healthy for the way we live, it’s not healthy for our kids, it’s not healthy for our elders. I mean, we have to learn how to mitigate this and not panic, which again, we’ve been able to do successfully here in Vermont by taking steps that are appropriate at the right time , and we feel that we’re at a point where we’re continuing to, ah, to mitigate the effects of this variant, and we’ll see if the numbers drop off successfully without imposing these measures.
There’s a lot that could be said about that insult to public speaking. But let’s stick to three things.
“It’s not healthy” to not get Covid? What the what what?
Also, let’s dispense with this “panic” narrative. We’ve all lived through harsh restrictions and a lengthy state of emergency and kept our cool. I think we can handle it again.
Finally, “we’ll see if the numbers drop off”? Is that where we are now? Hoping the numbers come down?
Where are the brave and certain forecasts of yesteryear? You know, the ones that insisted we’d turn the corner in four to five weeks or seven to nine weeks or maybe 10? Yeah, we didn’t hear any of that today. Instead, we got multiple hopeful references to the Tuesday case count of 82 — the lowest single-day number in six frickin’ weeks.
Yep, after all that talk about how case counts aren’t the best way to evaluate the pandemic, Scott and his officials were reduced to pinning their hopes on — wait for it — one day’s case count. To be fair, they did admit that a single day doesn’t constitute a trend. But hey, good statistics are in short supply these days. You gotta grab ’em when you find ’em.
Finally, on several occasions Scott reminded people that until recent weeks he’d handled the pandemic successfully, so we should trust him now.
Well, as they say in investment ads, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Just because he did a good job in the past doesn’t mean we should close our eyes to his being caught flat-footed by the Delta variant, his stubbornness in the face of changing/unclear circumstances, his administration’s failure to prepare for the safe opening of the schools, its premature cutbacks in contact tracing resources, or the widening gap between his policy and the advice of independent experts.
There are a lot of worthy questions to ask about Scott’s decisions during the Delta surge. Hopefully the media will start asking more of them, and asking repeatedly if necessary, until we start getting better answers or the governor blows a gasket, whichever comes first.