Are the Effects of Adoption and Termination of Shelter-in-Place Orders Symmetric? Evidence from a Natural Experiment
Policymakers have explicitly linked sustained reductions in COVID-19 case growth to reopening policies, including the lifting of shelter-in-place orders (SIPOs). This “hardwired” policy endogeneity creates challenges in isolating the causal effect of lifting a statewide SIPO on COVID-19. To overcome simultaneity bias, we exploit a unique natural experiment generated by the Wisconsin Supreme Court when it abolished Wisconsin’s “Safer at Home” order on separation-of-powers grounds. We capitalize on this sudden, dramatic, and largely unanticipated termination of a statewide SIPO to estimate its effect on social distancing and COVID-19 case growth. First, using anonymized smartphone data from SafeGraph Inc. and a synthetic control design, we find that SIPO termination had little impact on social distancing. Then, using data on COVID-19 case and mortality rates, we find no evidence that the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision impacted COVID-19 growth up to a month following the repeal. We conclude that the impacts of SIPOs are likely not symmetric across enactment and lifting of orders, and this asymmetry sheds new light on the potential mechanisms underlying the effectiveness of these orders.