National and local leaders are responding in dramatically different ways to the current global pandemic, which, if left uncontrolled, could reach a severity not seen since the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919.
The British government has pledged to pay up to 80 percent of individuals’ wages during mandated shutdowns, so that companies don’t have to embrace a strategy of mass layoffs. Denmark’s government has a similar, perhaps even more all-encompassing strategy, with hourly workers to be paid up to 90 percent of lost income.
The U.S. government, by contrast, appears frozen in its tracks. With no universal health care system, it is flailing as to how to contain an epidemic when containment strategies rely on early identification of virus carriers. It has struggled to coordinate a national strategy for securing medical supplies. It has shown a shocking inability to even get test kits out to the states. It has no guaranteed paid sick leave — let alone the concept of guaranteeing wages in exchange for temporarily shuttered companies not firing their workers.
In a desperate effort to prevent health care systems from being overwhelmed and to ward off staggeringly high death numbers, one country after the next is being forced to lock down its populations, shutter “nonessential” businesses, impose draconian travel restrictions and border controls, and open up Treasury funding streams to backstop wages and to keep banking systems and markets vaguely functional as large parts of the global economy go dark.
However, in the highly decentralized federal system that makes up the United States, national and local leaders are varying widely in their efforts to help residents survive this prolonged economic crisis.
On a national level, the dysfunctional Congress has struggled to craft a fair and workable bill to keep the country’s tens of millions of vulnerable, low-income families, afloat. Meanwhile Trump, who only reluctantly, and extremely late in the day, was forced to recognize the severity of the pandemic, has dithered and put out scientifically untenable statements, resisted national standards for how to enforce social distancing and expressed his disdain for the notion of stay-home orders and bans on large gatherings. In his public appearances, including an interview on Fox on Tuesday in which he advocated reopening the U.S. for business by Easter, he routinely seems more concerned about the stock market and his own political standing than he is about people’s lives.
As a result, it has fallen to state governors and city mayors to try to craft their own responses in order to flatten their local infection curves.
The responses have ranged widely, and with them have ranged the estimates for how many residents are likely to be sickened, how many are likely to die, and over what time period the epidemic will crest. The goal is both to flatten the curve, so fewer people fall ill, but also to extend it, so they fall ill over months instead of weeks, thus keeping hospital systems from failing in the face of huge surges of desperately ill patients.
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine went out on a limb with orders to close down large sports events, shutter colleges and schools, and force restaurants and bars to stop in-house service well before most other states were willing to contemplate such actions. He also ordered a postponement of his state’s primary election, declaring that were it to take place it would constitute a public health threat. In Hawaii, Governor David Ige announced last week that all those arriving to the islands from outside would have to quarantine for two weeks. It was, he acknowledged, an “extraordinary” action, but one he felt was warranted by the urgency of the moment.
In Texas, however, there’s been far less urgency at the state level: There, Gov. Greg Abbott has had a far more hands-off approach, resisting for weeks the closure of schools and businesses, even while many cities within the Lone Star state have begun enforcing their own stay-at-home requirements. Texas’s lieutenant governor even suggested that seniors should risk dying of COVID-19 in order to get the economy back on track. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has come out against signing a stay-in-place order, and last week stood back and watched as large numbers of young spring breakers, seemingly deaf to the pleas of public health officials, flocked to the state’s beaches. Since then, however, spooked by the New York region’s high infection rates, DeSantis has readied an executive order mandating a 14-day quarantine for all those who fly into his state from Connecticut, New Jersey and New York; on Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control made such a quarantine of those leaving the Big Apple national in scope.
Meanwhile, in New York and also in California, two states with extremely high infection numbers, governors Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom are marshalling resources, negotiating directly with private companies to plug gaps in their medical supply chain, and ordering the creation, at speed, of additional hospital spaces. They have, in these moments, and in their daily public briefing sessions, offered a glimpse of the kind of rational U.S. governance that is so painfully, stunningly, lacking at the federal level.
Of course, neither governor has had perfect responses. Cuomo has been extraordinarily resistant to ordering a full lock-down in New York City, even as the epidemic surged dangerously over the past two weeks, threatening to swamp the hospital system. Now, belatedly, he has had to recognize that the speed of the epidemic’s spread is about to swamp his state’s hospitals weeks, if not months, earlier than was initially predicted.
Newsom has requisitioned hotels and trailers to house many members of the state’s homeless population during the crisis, but has not, to date, furloughed large numbers of medically vulnerable people who are incarcerated in the state’s notoriously overcrowded prison system, as advocates have been urging him to do.
That said, compared to the national response out of Washington, D.C., and compared to the propaganda exercises that Trump’s public briefings on the outbreak have devolved into, both governors have shown powerful skills as executives coordinating across agencies and between public and private sectors, and also as communicators, explaining each step of the process to their nervous constituents. They are both working on ways to rapidly convert convention centers, vacant hotels, and temporarily vacated college dormitories into hospitals; and they are using their states’ fiscal and political clout to get companies such as Apple, and entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, on board in an attempt to mass produce ventilators and other vital supplies at speed.
In their daily briefings, both Cuomo and Newsom have carefully explained the latest statistics and epidemiological projections. Neither has attempted to minimize the seriousness of the moment, or to bluster his way past unpleasant questions. Instead, both have explained that the fight to flatten the curve will be a long one, and that life-as-normal will be hugely disrupted for the next several months at least. And Newsom, in particular, has framed the struggle as being a communal issue involving philosophical ideas of how the social contract operates in the 21st century. “People, I think, recognize the need to do more and meet this moment,” he said in justifying his stay-in-place order last week.
If this country somehow avoids a catastrophe on a truly epic scale over the coming months, it will not be because of the federal administration but because, at critical moments, important state leaders laid down the gauntlet, challenged their populations to rise to the challenge, and insisted that the federal government get its act together even in the face of a president seemingly determined to undermine his own public health officials at every turn.