U.S. states are creating separate and growing confederations to set common policies on coronavirus tests, tracking patients and setting standards for resuming social and economic life.
California Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday laid out rough benchmarks for reopening his state’s economy — and radically reshaping daily life — as he tried to bring other states into his West Coast coalition to fight the new coronavirus. The move came as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has marshaled seven Northeastern states, sparred with President Donald Trump over who has final authority to lift stay-home orders and restart the U.S. economy. And in the Midwest, another group of states is considering its own unified effort.
The remarkable ad hoc efforts, while more concrete than any plans publicly advanced by the federal government, also raised the possibility of a nation split into discrete regions, with their own standards and timelines for easing stay-at-home orders. That could hamper the larger fight against a virus that has already killed more than 25,000 Americans, as experts warn that lifting restrictions too soon would risk another surge of infections.
“It would not be appropriate if a state says, ‘We need to be taking restraints off,’ with large numbers of cases that would then be exported to their neighbors and overwhelm their own health-care system,” said Robert Kim-Farley, a professor in the epidemiology department of the University of California at Los Angeles. “It’s important to be a good neighbor.”
Seven states still lack blanket stay-home orders and their residents could easily cross state lines to import or export the virus. And the partisan divide in America also raises the specter of a predominantly Republican consortium coming under pressure not to coordinate with the Democratic coasts.
“The virus doesn’t respect state borders, and people walk and drive across borders all the time,” said William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. “If you have a regionally coordinated effort, that’s more likely to be successful.”
Newsom, who has allied with the Democratic governors of Oregon and Washington, avoided setting a timetable for easing restrictions that have crippled the economy. But he warned that when stay-home orders are relaxed, life will look quite different. Restaurants may reopen, he said, but the waiters may be wearing masks and gloves, and staff may check diners’ temperatures before allowing them inside. Schools may have to stagger start times to keep students from crowding classrooms. Mass gatherings, such as concerts or sporting events, are simply “not in the cards,” he said.
“Normal it will not be, at least until we have herd immunity and we have a vaccine,” Newsom said in a press conference.
Before orders are relaxed, Newsom said he would want to see coronavirus hospitalizations and intensive-care cases decline for several weeks. The state also needs to greatly increase its ability to test for the virus and assemble a network of thousands of people who can track new cases and trace the movements of infected people — a protection against further outbreaks.
“Let’s not make the mistake of pulling the plug too early, as much as we all want to,” he said.
Newsom said other Western state governors were also likely to join in the regional protocol. Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Colorado’s Jared Polis, told Bloomberg News the Democrat “would welcome a regional or coordinated national approach and has been in touch with several governors throughout the crisis.”
Sparring With Washington
Newsom, Cuomo and other governors appear determined to chart their own paths out of the lockdown, largely proceeding without coordinating with the White House.
Trump, who wants the economy functioning, has said his administration will issue guidance for governors who want to relax social-distancing practices. On Monday, he declared that “when somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total” and governors shouldn’t challenge his plans. Tuesday night, he said that some states could reopen almost immediately, but allowed that he would be “authorizing” them to do as they liked.
Cuomo earlier in the day said that the president’s assertion of primacy is simply wrong on constitutional grounds, a view that most scholars echo.
“This was the first battle: Do we want a king or do we want a president?” Cuomo said in a news conference. But the governor also said he didn’t plan to waste time debating the matter.
Cuomo’s consortium also includes New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware, all run by Democrats, and Massachusetts, whose governor is a Republican. A panel of officials from the states will begin meeting soon.
Decisions should be made in coordination, the governors said. “It doesn’t do me any good to have a bar closed in Greenwich, Connecticut, and it’s open right across the border,” said Governor Ned Lamont.
In the Midwest, governors are discussing ways to coordinate, said Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. Reynolds, a Republican, said she has discussed what a Midwestern regional reopening could look like with counterparts in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Missouri and Illinois.
“While we’ll look at it from a regional perspective and we’ll talk about collectively the metrics we’re using, each individual governor is going to look at their own state’s metrics,” she said.
Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, the sole Democrat in the group, said Tuesday that he joined conversations in the past few days. “Speaking with a common voice may be a good move,” he said.
Republican governors must balance the best way of fighting the disease and the political risk of enraging a president for whom fealty is crucial.
Governor Mike DeWine, Republican of Ohio, said he talks frequently with nearby governors, but he said he doesn’t know whether there’ll be a formal collaboration.
“That consultation, sharing of ideas, is going to continue and is very important,” DeWine said on a live-streamed interview Monday with The Washington Post.
DeWine was among the earliest and most aggressive chief executives, canceling events and putting in place stay-home orders even as the president downplayed the pandemic. But he has dismissed any tension between the Trump administration and the states.
“This is not a confrontational issue between us and the White House,” DeWine told reporters Monday. “Just as we’ve worked together, we will continue to work together. Every state is different, and we’re going to have to lay out a plan, and I’m confident that the Ohio plan we lay out the White House will think it’s fine.”
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