A growing number of governors ordered a partial shutdown of their state economies this week to limit the spread of the coronavirus, mandating that certain retailers cutoff sales, restaurants kick out diners and fitness centers close their doors.
In other states, governors deferred those decisions to mayors and other local officials who went even further. Six counties in the San Francisco Bay area ordered nearly 7 million residents to stay inside, allowing them to venture out only for necessities during a three-week period starting Tuesday.
“This disease is a challenge unlike any we’ve experienced in our lifetimes,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said as she issued a ban on dining in at restaurants and followed several other governors in closing bars, movie theaters and gyms. “Fighting it will cause significant but temporary changes to our daily lives. … This is about saving lives.”
Even as governors and local officials took sweeping action, governments lacked consensus on how to respond to a crisis that is pummeling state and local economies, idling millions of workers and threatening to severely strain health care services in the hardest-hit areas. Business churned on, almost as usual, in some parts of the country.
The Trump administration and federal health authorities tried to provide some clarity Monday. They recommended that Americans should not gather in groups of more than 10, educate their children at home and avoid discretionary travel over the next 15 days. Older Americans should remain at home to avoid coming in contact with the virus.
Still, the White House stopped short of ordering such restrictions nationwide. The lack of governmental consensus has resulted in a national patchwork of precautions — and general public confusion about what’s OK to do and what’s not, as public health officials try to slow the spread of the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.
“It’s chaos,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday. “I think it actually feeds the feeling that the country’s out of control. There is no clear direction; there is no clear path.”
The Democratic governors of Connecticut, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington all ordered the full or partial closure of certain categories of businesses, though it was unclear in some cases exactly how that would be enforced.
Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan also ordered the closure of bars, restaurants, gyms and movie theaters across the state effective at 5 p.m. Monday, though he still allowed for drive-through, carryout and delivery services. He also announced a prohibition on social, community, recreational or religious gatherings of more than 50 people in close proximity.
“The governors are really leading and taking charge in their individual states, and they’re acting on what they think is the best thing,” said Hogan, who is chairman of the National Governors Association, “because while the federal government has had some guidelines, which are changing, they have not given clear directives.”
While suggesting that New York’s governor could “do more” in the fight against coronavirus, Trump also sought to assure people that there is cross-governmental cooperation.
“I think it’s very important that all of the governors get along very well with us and that we get along with the governors, and I think that’s happening,” Trump said.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, praised the federal government’s response as he took only limited action amid the outbreak. Unlike other governors of heavily populated states, Abbott has not made explicit calls for limiting mass gatherings — instead leaving those decisions up to local officials.
“This is not a time to panic,” he said. “It’s not as if we have never been through this before. We’ve been through this many, many times.”
For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and those with mild illness recover in about two weeks. But it can lead to severe illnesses such as pneumonia, especially in the elderly and people with existing health problems, and recovery could take six weeks in such cases.
Unlike in some other countries grappling with the virus, the U.S. government has issued only suggestions — not orders — about how citizens and businesses should behave. Those actual decisions have been left to states, which retain significant powers under the U.S. Constitution.
Some governors have been hesitant to use those powers too aggressively.
In Kansas, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly banned public gatherings of 50 or more people for the next two months, after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released similar guidance, but stopped short of ordering any business closings. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, issued a statement saying he strongly urged the cancellation of public gatherings of 50 or more but did not ban them, even as local officials in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas did so.
Parson also has refrained from ordering the statewide closure of any businesses, schools or colleges.
“Local leaders know their communities best, and it is important that they have the flexibility to make decisions based on what they feel is most appropriate to protect their communities,” Parson spokeswoman Kelli Jones said.
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said public health decisions that are made locally can sometimes result in greater compliance from residents.
“It would be nice if we could waive a magic wand and have a universal decision across the whole nation. But the fact is that every community is very different, the resources that they have are different,” Benjamin said. “From my perspective, things ought to go to the lowest level that they can … with the goal of trying to be as consistent overall as you can.”
Governors in multiple states expressed frustration with the federal government over a shortage of medical supplies and laboratory testing materials for the COVID-19 disease. Some states have reserved their lab testing kits for only the most likely cases so they don’t run out.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, said the state needs faster access from the CDC to its stockpile of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. She also said the states need economic relief for the businesses and workers losing income as many parts of the economy grind to a halt.
“I am out of patience. I don’t know how to get through to them,” Raimondo said. “This is not okay how the federal government is responding to this.”