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speakeasy world

The Speakeasy World of Covid Lockdowns


Much has been written about the harshness of the lockdowns and the painful costs imposed on many. Strict punishments were meted out for trivial violations of the most nonsensical rules. Businesses, careers, and years of education were lost. Family gatherings were canceled. Family members were unable to visit next of kin in the hospital. Speech development and social learning of children was delayed. 

There were also some who fought the authoritahs. Calvary Church in San Jose defied the state of California and is still fighting them in court over a multimillion dollar fine for worshiping without masks. A yoga studio in Pacifica faced fines for offering mask-free classes, and the owner was driven out of the state. 

No one denies all the harm that was done. Nor should we forget it. Yet I do not feel that telling the story of the harm captures the full complexity of what happened. There is a largely unexamined story: a parallel society that ignored the rules – a world of black markets, underground economies, and speakeasies. I will write about my home state of California because I know it. Each place has its own story to tell. I heard enough from people living all over the world to understand that things were different – for better or for worse – elsewhere. 

California had among the most enduring covid regimes in the US. Until shortly before it ended in mid-2022, each county could only escape the onerous restrictions by progressing through a series of lesser color-coded emergency states. The impossible exit condition was a near-zero level of (fictitious asymptomatic) cases for a period of weeks. Even now with life mostly back to normal other than the handful of mask-wearing dead-enders, California remains in an official state of emergency. 

The covid regime of rules on the books was unfailingly harsh. But taking the rules at face value does not tell the whole story. I saw society split into two parallel realities which I call the New Normal and Speakeasy World. In the New Normal, rules were enforced and people stayed home. In Speakeasy World – not so much. 

Some were unable to escape the New Normal. Other times, which world to live in was a choice. The New Normal was a prison in which the official rules were taken seriously. But as a prison, it operated at the minimum security tier. It was organized like a panopticon – a prison with a single guard who was supposed to observe all of the inmates. The panopticon’s design is intended to economize on the need for guards to staff it. Through fear, “inmates are effectively compelled to regulate their own behaviour.” 

In Speakeasy World, people were aware that they lived in a panopticon. But they realized that the one and only guard was probably checking TikTok on his mobile phone during working hours instead of surveilling prisoners. The prisoners made a calculated bet that the guard was not paying attention to their transgressions. 

I will illustrate Speakeasy World through anecdotes. The following reports from Speakeasy World are a collection of things that happened to me personally, reports from friends, stories I heard from people in my network, articles I have read, and other sources. Unless I link to the source, I have intentionally avoided attributing any of the stories to a particular source. My aim is to provide a window into the day-to-day realities of the underground culture of resistance without saying too much. 

  • Dentists offices were ordered closed other than for emergency care. Yet dentists did continue to clean teeth and offer routine care. In some cases the dentists provided “emergency teeth cleaning.” 
  • Massage therapists saw clients. 
  • Haircuts were available. 
  • Doctors and other types of medical offices provided normal (non-emergency) care.
  • Many types of businesses and offices did not wear or require their customers or employees to wear masks. 
  • Restaurants were open for sit-down service when indoor dining was closed. This was more common the further away from population centers, but did happen in cities. In some towns, entry was through the back door and then only if they recognized the patron.
  • Gyms and yoga studios stayed open during official closures. Often without masks. Some put up blackout curtains, painted the windows or used other camouflage to appear closed. 
  • NPR reported in a story titled Secret Gyms And The Economics Of Prohibition that a gym in downtown San Francisco was open speakeasy-style. 
  • Personal trainers trained clients in their private gyms or had access to the otherwise-closed gyms. 
  • Wealthy people hosted events at their homes or in other locations away from populated areas, some with over one hundred guests.
  • Other churches stayed open without attracting the eye of Sauron
  • California Governor Newsom ordered that Thanksgiving dinners were to be limited to members of two families. This order was clearly designed to maximize the unhappiness of host families who wanted to invite relatives of both spouses or multiple sets of nieces and nephews. Adherents to the New Normal who felt obliged to follow the order were deeply pained by this. In Speakeasy World, families had guests from any number of households for Thanksgiving. 
  • The FDA tweeted that only horses should get treated for covid. Yet ivermectin and the other demonized drug (hydroxychloroquine) were readily available through telemedicine or by mail order. 
  • People who were not able to obtain ivermectin through normal channels purchased the veterinary version and calculated or looked up the human dose size. 
  • Hospitals moved heaven and earth to prevent dying patients from receiving those drugs. Yet friends and family smuggled these drugs into hospitals and provided them covertly to family members.
  • California public health officials churned out ever more mind-boggling rules for how people were allowed to associate, creating a blizzard of nonsensical concepts such as pandemic pods and social bubbles. Who were they trying to reach with this message? Did anyone pay attention? In Speakeasy World, people gathered with any number of friends and family whenever they wanted to. 
  • There was a black market for fake vaccine cards. But even without a counterfeit, any vaccine card would do. Borrowing a card from a friend or roommate often worked because cafes and restaurants did not check that the name on a vaccine card matched the name of the person who presented it. Vaccine cards were hand-written by rushed pharmacists in often illegible handwriting, which would have defeated attempts to check the name. Or if the patron told the establishment that they had left their card at home, the person was often accepted without a card.
  • Outdoor masks were mandated for a time in many parts of California. In my opinion this was done to keep the sense of panic alive when hospitalizations fell to normal levels. There were a handful of online news pieces from multiple counties stating that violators would be fined. There were no follow-up stories about anyone ever getting fined and I am fairly confident that no one ever was fined. Many people could be seen walking around maskless in California cities.
  • I read multiple stories about how large-scale mobility trends could be observed from cell phone data. The CDC tracked cell phone data to determine who was naughty and who was nice. After a brief drop in car traffic, it bounced back. The San Francisco area is notorious for bad traffic. In my judgment, San Francisco Bay Area traffic was almost as bad as ever during the lockdown. I am curious where all of those people were driving.
  • The State of California tacitly acknowledged that many people were moving around in their cars through their targeted purchases of digital ads that ran on highway signage. It was hardly possible to drive more than a few miles on a CA route without seeing at least one warning telling you that you should not be driving. One of my favorite moments of absurdity was sitting in a traffic jam, reading: “Stay at Home: Save Lives.” 

So far I have discussed stories involving regular people. But they were by no means the only residents of Speakeasy World. There was another major class of violators: the political class. Our insect overlords had a grand time during lockdown. A few of my favorites: 

  • Gyms for San Francisco city employees had stayed open during closures. 
  • Police officers in San Francisco were often observed walking their beat or directing traffic without masks. Pictures were posted on social media of maskless police officers enjoying sit-down meals in restaurants during the indoor dining ban. 
  • San Francisco US Congressional Representative and at-the-time Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited a hair stylist at a salon without a mask, while barbers and salons were ordered to remain closed. 
  • Pelosi then claimed that she had been set up.  
  • During his indoor dining ban, California Governor Newsom hosted a group of well-heeled lobbyists at a high-end Napa restaurant. The recipient of three stars from the famed Guide Michelin, the French Laundry is reputed to be one of the best restaurants in the country. A typical dinner tab ranges from $500 to $1,000. Leaked photos from the event showed the guests dining in a civilized manner without face coverings. 
  • Newsom’s children received the benefits of in-person instruction by attending a private school that remained open while children of less princely parents were sitting at home in front of their laptops because the God-King Newsom had closed public schools. 
  • The mayor of San Francisco was captured on mobile phone video dancing without a mask at a nightclub. When questioned about this by the media, her defense was that everyone at the club was vaccinated. At the time, San Francisco rules required both masks and proof of vaccination to enter a club. In fairness to the mayor, she did raise a valid objection to her own rules: why require masks if the vaccine was sufficient? (One might also ask, why require vaccination if masks worked?)
  • It was rumored that many Silicon Valley executives were taking ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine prophylactically. 

Outside of California:

Economists have long known what happens when you try to outlaw basic aspects of human culture that go back thousands of years. Prohibition creates alternatives: underground economies, speakeasies and black markets. From the same NPR article

“Governments can legislate all they want, but prohibiting stuff with eager buyers and sellers is super hard,” says Jeffrey Miron, an economist at Harvard University who has spent three decades studying prohibitions. Miron … [says]: “Prohibitions don’t eliminate things. They drive them underground.” 

When economists try to explain why attempts to ban activities fail, the emergence of black markets is seen as the outcome of a poorly designed policy. The policy fails to achieve its intended objectives, perhaps because those in charge do not understand the law of unintended consequences; or maybe because of the incompetence or poor funding of the agencies tasked with implementing the regulations. 

But that line of thinking does not take into account an entirely different hypothesis: what if the authorities were not even trying? What if they didn’t care whether anyone followed the rules? Would they have been willing to turn on the screws enough to eliminate the Speakeasies that they made such flagrant use of? Where would Rep. Pelosi have gone for a haircut? Where would Gov. Newsom take his cronies for dinner? 

Is Speakeasy World a bug or a feature? As we look back it is looking more and more like the latter. The political class trolled the public. And when they were caught, they did not even pretend to care. Exhibit A: watch this video of Governor Newsom smirking his way through a non-apology-apology. My aim here is not to criticize their hypocrisy – as much as they have earned that. Rather, my point is this: in spite of endless repetition that they were keeping us all safe, the mayors and governors didn’t not seem concerned at all for their own safety. They didn’t care. They did not believe that the rituals made them any safer, because they knew there was no danger. 

I am not a lockdown denier like David Wallace-Wells, who wrote in the New York Times that “the United States never had lockdowns. (Not like elsewhere in the world, at least)” by which he meant that Americans were not welded into their apartments nor were they sealed into their factories. But for different reasons, I am saying that the attempt to lock down did not truly lock us down. At least, not the way that the rules on the books said that it did. 

The official story was that many services were closed and unavailable for nearly two years. The reality was that a range of services were available. The official story was that people did not meet in groups. The reality was that some neurotics locked themselves in their homes for two years and sanitized their UPS deliveries, but anyone who wanted to meet did so. The official story was that enforcement was strict; in truth, enforcement was spotty – strict in some matters, nonexistent in others. 

In a quote misattributed to Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (but still worth citing), “We know they are lying, they know they are lying, they know we know they are lying, we know they know we know they are lying, but they are still lying.” 

While this is true, they knew that we were not following their rules either. It was more of a Princess Bride battle of wits – they knew that we knew and vice versa. It was a cynical enterprise in which both sides knew that the other was lying, but pretended not to. The only people who were unaware of the charade were the blissfully ignorant who lived in The New Normal and thought that everyone else lived there too. 

[I would like to write more about speakeasy society. If you have experiences, observations, or even stories that you heard second hand, feel free to share them with me.  Create a one-time-use burner email account with a free email service if you don’t want me to know who you are.]

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