President Donald Trump’s flailing, half-hearted and haphazard response to the novel coronavirus outbreak has put governors on the frontlines of the crisis, forcing them to commit to the sort of dramatic measures the president hasn’t.
Many governors have stepped up and announced closures to slow the spread of the virus, as top health experts advise. But some state leaders, most of them Republicans, have instead followed Trump’s lead, especially when it comes to his desire to open businesses in an effort to limit the economic damage caused by the pandemic.
Although the specific directives differ, most states have now ordered most of their nonessential businesses, including most retail companies, to temporarily close in an effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The vast majority of those that haven’t yet closed businesses are governed by Republicans ― many of whom have closed bars and limited capacity at restaurants but have otherwise left the decision to shut down businesses largely to local officials and individual owners themselves.
The outbreak overwhelmingly hit blue states first. But since then, it’s spread to every state in the nation, and the United States now has more confirmed cases than any country in the world.
The governors who haven’t locked down businesses have differing versions of the same explanation: In South Carolina, which has fewer than 500 confirmed cases, Gov. Henry McMaster said closures aren’t yet necessary, even as some cities implemented their own. In other states, governors have been slower to act because they appear to have bought into Trump’s early view that the response to the virus was driven by hysteria rather than legitimate worry.
Still others explicitly argued that the cost of shutting businesses outweighs the benefits. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick even went so far as to suggest that many elderly people would gladly sacrifice their lives in order to keep the economy running.
As the virus continues to spread across the country, and especially across the South, the cost of such foot-dragging could be devastating if the governors’ risky bet that COVID-19 isn’t as deadly or as widespread as public health officials have warned doesn’t pay off.
Many of the states in which governors have responded meagerly to the crisis are the most vulnerable to massive and rapid virus outbreaks, thanks to their large elderly populations, poor overall public health quality among their residents, and other factors, including lower health insurance rates, a lack of access to quality care, or statewide medical systems that may be quickly overrun.
Florida is a prime example. While New York is currently experiencing the worst outbreak of any state in the country, public health experts have increasingly warned that the epicenter could soon shift to Florida ― in part because it has nearly 4 million residents over the age of 65, making it particularly vulnerable to the virus.
Florida has roughly 2,700 confirmed cases, a relatively low number on a per capita basis. Experts have suggested, however, that the outbreak in Florida may already be much worse than assumed, given that the state hasn’t conducted as many tests as New York or other hard-hit states, and that some hospitals have had to stop testing because they lack supplies.
But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis resisted calls to shutdown nonessential businesses, arguing that because the majority of the state’s cases are concentrated in Miami, it doesn’t make sense to take statewide action.
There have already been clear costs from DeSantis’ lack of action: Last week, spring breakers flooded Florida’s beaches after DeSantis rejected calls to close them. The crowds, and the high numbers of tourists among them, may have only worsened the spread of the virus both inside Florida and beyond.
There are roughly 1,700 confirmed cases in Texas, where a “patchwork of responses” to the outbreak could weaken its ability to contain the spread. As in Florida, an early lack of testing may be obscuring the true size of the outbreak in Texas.
Gov. Greg Abbott promised to increase testing statewide after just one of four proposed testing sites in Houston was able to open last week, but equipment and testing and equipment shortages have continued. But Abbott and Patrick have shown little appetite for the idea of shuttering businesses: On Fox News this week, Patrick suggested that the economy should take priority over the lives of grandparents like himself, saying the U.S. shouldn’t “sacrifice the country” to stop the spread.
In Tennessee, more than 23,000 state residents signed a petition asking Gov. Bill Lee to shut down businesses amid the outbreak. The petition was started by three doctors, but the governor has so far refused to act on it. Nursing organizations in Missouri have made similar demands of Gov. Mike Parson there, but he has not yet ordered businesses to close. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has also faced calls from doctors and health officials to shut down nonessential businesses, but hasn’t done so. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, both Democrats, have also allowed most businesses to remain open amid the crisis.
Even when Republican governors have reluctantly agreed, the measures may not go as far as health experts have suggested they should. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, who initially responded to the COVID-19 outbreak by tweeting a picture of himself and his family at a crowded restaurant, this week ordered nonessential businesses to close, at least in counties that had confirmed cases.
The executive order prompted confusion, though, as local and county officials and business owners scrambled to figure out if it applied to them. As a result, some local officials have implemented their own response to the crisis.
That might not be possible in Mississippi, where Gov. Tate Reeves finally ordered nonessential businesses to close across the state this week, after initially downplaying the threat of coronavirus to Mississippians.
Reeves’ order, though, will allow most businesses to claim they are essential and should remain open, according to reports. And the governor’s directive may even supersede local ordinances, preventing mayors and county officials from closing businesses they deem nonessential. (One Mississippi mayor told local news that Reeves has since agreed to let local orders remain in place.)
At least one Republican has heeded dire warnings about her lack of response to the crisis, after previously denying that the outbreak was bad enough to warrant such a step.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey faced fierce criticism of her response not just from public health officials, but within her own administration, after Lt. Gov Will Ainsworth this week blasted the state’s response to the crisis in a letter to the task force Ivey had commissioned to deal with it.
“This task force and the state are not taking a realistic view of the numbers or adequately preparing for what awaits us,” Ainsworth wrote in the letter, which warned that Alabama hospitals lacked the capacity to test or treat the number of residents who may get infected.
“Each moment that we lose by not preparing for the coming deluge will result in the loss of life and the crippling of our health care infrastructure,” Ainsworth wrote. “Simply put, we have not done enough to prepare, and action must be taken now.”
On Friday morning, Ivey ordered the state’s nonessential businesses to close.