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As we were in the final phases of editing a book on disruption in environmental law, a pandemic swept across the world disrupting daily life and the functioning of society to an extent unprecedented in living memory. The novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 was identified in China in late 2019 and by late February 2020, it had spread to every continent except Antarctica; as of April, 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that over 148 million people had been infected worldwide with over 3 million deaths. Scientists and public health experts have raced to understand the virus—how is it transmitted and spreads, who is vulnerable, how is it dangerous, and what are effective treatments—to help governments respond. In many places, including the United States, governments slowed the spread of the virus by relying primarily on the blunt tool of physical distancing, typically in the form of stay-at-home orders. Physical distancing, whether engaged in voluntarily as a result of fear of the virus or required by stay-at-home orders, coupled with other virus control measures, including mask wearing, travel restrictions, and a nationwide conversion to distance learning at all levels of education, impeded the virus’ spread, but it also occasioned massive economic disruption, with unemployment rates reaching over 14% in April 2020 before dropping again to around 8% (pre-COVID rates had been right below 4%). The National Bureau of Economic Research concluded by early June 2020 that “the unprecedented magnitude of the decline in employment and production, and its broad reach across the entire economy” had led to a recession.4 By late spring 2020, having either met public health criteria, seeking economic and psychological relief, or simply acting out of political partisanship, many states began to relax social distancing measures.

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Environmental Law Institute


Washington, D.C.


Copyright held by Environmental Law Institute. This chapter is reproduced with permission.


Keith Hirokawa & Jessica Owley

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Environmental Law, Disrupted

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