April 2, 2020 4:57PM

Pandemics and Power: A Notebook

I’m a bit of a COVID-19 hawk myself — being exposed to a fatal load of virus particles by some well‐​meaning stranger in a shared public space seems to me a kind of physical aggression — but it is a truism that the moment the government begins asserting emergency powers, there is an invitation to abuse. Three examples in what’s all too likely to be a continuing series:

* Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said that if nonessential businesses were spotted operating during the shutdown order, he would tell the municipally owned utility, the Department of Water and Power, to shut off their service. Duly noted: when cities own and run utilities as L.A. does, they’ve got a really hard chain with which to yank you into line on unrelated control issues. Something to keep in mind next time some campaign tries to make “public power” look cuddly.

* From Singapore to Alsace to Sacramento and beyond, religious gatherings have been linked to outbreaks of the novel coronavirus. Notwithstanding the First Amendment’s protection of freedom to worship, existing precedent would probably direct courts to uphold a ban on religious assemblages amid a raging local epidemic so long as it were neutrally applied against gatherings of a similar level of public hazard. Leave it to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, however, to find the unconstitutional card to play by warning synagogues meeting in defiance of a coronavirus order that he might close them “permanently.”

No, Mr. Mayor. Even if courts let you keep them from convening just now, you don’t get to shut them down “permanently,” not in this country. When the emergency ends, as it will, their rights re‐​emerge intact.

* Also in Gotham, according to the city’s Daily News, the New York State Academy of Family Physicians is not letting a good crisis go to waste. It is “urging Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo to issue an executive order banning the sale of all tobacco products,” the excuse being that smokers, their lungs damaged by years of use, may be at more risk of severe consequences in COVID-19 infection. No mention of the possible public health implications of creating a sprawling, furtive new black market just as New Yorkers are asked to stay indoors.