In coronavirus fight, governors given broad leeway to lead
As politicians in Washington, D.C. take steps to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, many of the decisions on how to reduce the spread are being left to America’s governors — a cast of characters as unique as all 50 states.
After the number of people testing positive for the virus skyrocketed in New York and California, Govs. Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom took steps to keep their residents at home as much as possible.
But in middle America, responses to this unprecedented health crisis are as varied and partisan as the governors themselves.
In Oklahoma, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt gained national notoriety for encouraging Oklahoma families to dine out amid the early spread of COVID-19. The businessman-turned-politician defended his actions, despite deleting his tweet.
But Stitt reversed course days later to lend his support for recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people avoid gatherings of 10 or more and dining in restaurants.
Stitt attributed the change in tune to a rapidly changing situation that seems to get worse every day.
“There is certainly no one-size-fits-all approach into managing the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Mick Bullock, public affairs director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “It’s a time of flexibility and improvisation.”
State officials are attempting to anticipate the impacts of the virus in order to respond quicker. Many state legislatures are moving quickly to ensure agencies and local governments have the funds to prepare and respond to the coronavirus outbreak through a supplemental appropriation or freeing up money from state savings, Bullock said.
All 50 governors have declared a state of emergency and nearly all have mandated statewide school closures, according to the National Governors Association.
“Governors are leading on the front lines of this crisis, and we need Congress to work together to support our efforts,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, chairman of the National Governors Association. “This is no time for partisan dysfunction. It's going to take all of us working together in order to save thousands of lives.”
The differences in actions called for by governors reflects the contours of their states’ politics and the known extent of disease spread.
Like many governors, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, has expressed frustration over access to federal supplies of testing materials and protective masks, gloves and gowns for medical staff.
In press conferences since first declaring a public emergency in her state on March 11, she has stated that the state has received only 25 percent of its allotment from the national stockpile of medical supplies, and that some of that equipment was past its expiration date. New Mexico began procuring extra supplies on its own beginning in February.
Lujan Grisham issued a stay-at-home order on March 23, closing nonessential businesses and limiting gatherings to five people or less.
“Every time you leave your house, you are putting yourself, your family and your community at risk,” she said.
New Mexico’s Department of Health has confirmed 100 cases of COVID-19 in the state after 6,842 tests, but has not disclosed details of how testing has been distributed around the state, especially in its more rural southern counties near the U.S.-Mexico border. Drive-thru testing in Las Cruces, the state’s second-largest city, began days later than in the Albuquerque area, though Lujan Grisham has directed the health department to institute testing sites in every county.
Nine individuals have required hospital care, Lujan Grisham said, including one Arizona resident. No deaths have been reported.
In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, is attempting to balance the need for social distancing with Coloradans’ characteristic passion for the outdoors.
He’s avoided a statewide stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order but has ordered the closure of restaurants (dine-in only), bars, breweries, gyms, theaters, tattoo shops, massage parlors, and hair and nail salons. Gatherings are restricted to no more than 10 people. State guidance encourages people to stay at home as much as possible while also recommending that residents continue to exercise and spend time outdoors.
For example, a Coloradan who normally jogs three times a week should consider reducing that to twice a week, picking a less-traveled route and going out when fewer people will be around, Polis suggested at a Sunday news conference.
Polis said Sunday the state has no plans to formally enforce social distancing.
"There is no enforcement authority here,” he said. “There’s a far greater enforcement authority in these matters, and his name is the Grim Reaper.”
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock signaled the Grim Reaper might not be enough to keep residents of Colorado’s largest city in check. He issued a citywide stay-at-home order on Monday. Boulder followed suit on Tuesday.
Alcohol and marijuana have retained a foothold in Colorado despite Polis’s order for nonessential businesses to reduce their in-person work by half or realign the workplace to accommodate extreme social distancing. Polis exempted medical marijuana dispensaries from the order and will allow curbside pickup for recreational dispensaries. The state included liquor stores in its list of critical businesses, and restaurants and bars can offer beer, wine and mixed drinks for delivery or pickup as long as they’re served with food.
In Texas late last week, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered Texans to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people as well as gyms and dine-in eating and drinking at bars and restaurants. He also ordered the temporary closure of in-person school operations. The order expires April 3.
Abbott, a Republican, has also signed orders to increase hospital bed capacity, expand the nursing workforce and waive certain pharmacy regulations. In a bid to prop up the restaurant industry, he also waived a rule barring restaurants from delivering alcoholic beverages, among many other orders.
But he has resisted a statewide shelter-in-place declaration. Over the weekend, couching the disease’s spread as an urban versus rural issue, Abbott explained that “more than 200 counties” of Texas’ 254 counties “have zero cases of COVID-19.”
Epidemiologists interviewed by USA Today journalists said that statistic was likely inaccurate since testing is not widespread.
But Abbott said he wanted to wait to see how his earlier order played out before tightening restrictions further. That approach has played well in the state’s vast rural areas.
State Rep. Kyle Biedermann, a Republican who represents part of the Texas hill country, said a statewide shelter-in-place order would have generated political blow back.
“Oh boy, you better believe it, because it’s not necessary yet,” said Biedermann, who said that if local communities want to go further than the governor is mandating, that’s up to them.
Leaders of heavily urban counties, such as ones that are home to Dallas and Austin, have decided not to wait for further action from the governor, instead issuing their own shelter-in-place edicts. All together, 59.4% of the state’s population will be under those orders by Thursday.
Abbott’s reluctance to issue a shelter-in-place declaration statewide comes as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Monday suggested on Fox News that seniors like him are willing to sacrifice their health in exchange for loosening rules that could jumpstart the economy.
And Abbot’s covid-related orders have become enmeshed in Texas abortion politics: After Abbott banned unnecessary medical procedures to conserve coronavirus supplies, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said all clinics in the state must stop providing abortions unless a woman’s life or health are in danger.
Across the Texas border, Louisiana’s Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has taken a different tack. With his state facing the fastest growth rate of coronavirus cases in the world, Edwards issued a statewide stay-at-home order that took effect on Monday and is due to end on April 12, as part of a bid to stymie the virus’s spread.
The move made him one of at least eight governors to issue such an order.
As part of the order, nonessential businesses, including personal care and entertainment venues were required to shut down. Restaurants could remain open only for drive-through, delivery and take out.
"I am a person of faith," Edwards told CNN on Monday, in an effort to convince faith leaders and others to discourage people from gathering. "I believe in the power of prayer. But I also believe in science. In this case I choose to do what science tells me while I pray for the best outcome."
Stitt on Wednesday issued stricter regulations to close nonessential businesses in the 19 counties with confirmed cases of COVID-19 and issued a safer-at-home policy to keep the eldery and immunocompromised at home for at least the next month.
"We’re taking what we think is appropriate action at this time based on the facts that we have and the data in Oklahoma," he said.
But Stitt continued to resist calls for a statewide shelter-at-home mandate. And legislative Democrats and Oklahoma medical professionals pushed back, saying Stitt’s actions didn’t go far enough.
More than 100 Oklahomans have tested positive and three have died from COVID-19.
“The problem is the federal government is telling governors to handle it, and in a state like ours, the governor is telling mayors to handle it,” said Oklahoma House Minority Leader Emily Virgin. “What you’re left with is a patchwork of regulations and we know that this virus isn’t going to respect the borders of municipalities.