State and local officials are pausing or reversing plans to reopen public life as the coronavirus pandemic surges in parts of the country that previously seemed to be trending in the right direction.
Carlos Giménez, the Republican mayor of Florida’s Miami-Dade County, the state’s largest, announced on Monday that he would close restaurants, gyms and other facilities. Last week, he shuttered entertainment venues including casinos, cinemas and strip clubs and instituted a curfew ― as Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) closed bars, theaters and gyms, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) shut down bars and indoor dining in most of his state. The governors of Mississippi, New York, Delaware, New Mexico, Nevada, Maine, New Jersey and Washington have recently postponed plans to lift limits on normal life.
The pattern shows how fragile a respite from the virus can be. And it highlights the toll of mixed messages from the federal government ― and from President Donald Trump himself ― over how to handle the pandemic, down to basic measures like requirements to wear masks in public. Some Republicans who once resisted mask mandates, like Ducey and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, have reversed course as their states’ hospitals have filled up. But after months of a culture war over enforcing mask-wearing and taking other steps to contain the virus, the turn toward restrictions and re-closures could be coming too late.
On July 4, Trump falsely claimed 99% of cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, are “totally harmless.” At least 130,000 Americans have succumbed to the fast-spreading infection.
“There was a real urgency when we closed down… then we reopened and it was as if, OK, we’re OK,” Dale Holness, the Democratic mayor of Florida’s Broward County, which is home to Fort Lauderdale, told local television station WPLG on Monday. “I think we’re disjointed in terms of messaging from different parts of our government. That’s sad.”
After starting to reopen many businesses in May and beaches soon afterward, Florida has become the worst-hit state in the country, with over 200,000 cases of COVID-19; on Saturday, it reported the U.S.’s highest-ever increase in cases in one day.
Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is a close Trump ally who has challenged calls for a more serious lockdown in his state and echoed the president’s argument that Democrats and reporters are exaggerating the seriousness of the pandemic. Florida officials are now struggling to implement contact tracing, a key measure to rein in the virus, a CNN investigation showed on Monday.
Some officials are paying close attention to the potentially brutal consequences of reopening too fast and the challenge of trying to backtrack when widespread infection has already taken hold. “We need to do more,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) warned on Twitter on Monday, noting that his state’s rate of coronavirus transmission had increased for the first time in weeks, with each patient infecting one other person. His aides are watching figures on transmission and hospitalization and are ready to halt reopening, the Star-Ledger reported.
In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) escalated a battle with the state legislature on July 2 by vetoing bills that would reopen skating rinks, gyms, bowling alleys and other entertainment facilities.
Still, opposition to coronavirus-related restrictions remains a potent force, too, at least in part because of Trump’s public dismissiveness of the crisis and his advisers’ assessment that his best bet ahead of the November election is to convince Americans to become accustomed to hundreds of deaths each day and continued contagion.
Some conservatives in Texas are now portraying Abbott as giving in to liberals and abandoning GOP orthodoxy for his about-turn on reopening policies, and the state Republican Party has not abandoned plans to hold an in-person convention later this month. A judge in Collin County issued his own executive order to overrule Abbott’s limit on gatherings of more than 10 people.
In Arizona, the CEO of a chain of gyms is suing Ducey ― and secured a spot on “Fox & Friends,” a show frequently praised by Trump, to promote his cause on Sunday.
Other countries struggling with the pandemic have found they have needed to stop reopening or reverse previous decisions. Spanish officials imposed new local quarantines in two regions over the weekend, and Israel reinstituted aspects of a lockdown on Monday that it had ended in May.
Elsewhere, however, authorities can say they are learning from their experience battling the first wave of the virus, and they can count on some degree of public faith that they managed to do so successfully. The U.S.’s long initial encounter with coronavirus seems nowhere near its end.
More than 50 former health officials who worked under Republican and Democratic presidents urged politicians to stop tying the fight against COVID-19 to the nation’s heated political fights in a statement on Monday.
“At great cost to our country, science and expertise have been marginalized in our government’s response to the pandemic thus far,” they wrote. “Far too often, political expediency has won out over scientists’ advice … sidelining science has already cost lives, imperiled the safety of our loved ones, compromised our ability to safely re-open our businesses, schools, and places of worship, and endangered the health of our democracy itself.”
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