As President Donald Trump leans in to his fervent desire to reopen the nation’s economy by May 1, there is a major obstacle standing in his path: the nation’s governors and mayors who hold the power to enforce closures and who have often taken a far more aggressive posture on protecting public health than the President.
While Trump insisted Friday that he will “certainly listen” to the recommendations of his health experts as he weighs what he has called the most difficult decision he’s ever made, he is assembling an “Opening our Country Council” that will be announced Tuesday. He has repeatedly underscored that America “wasn’t built to be shut down” and has mused aloud about lifting stay-at-home orders in different parts of the country while keeping hotspots locked down.
In that sense, there is a widening chasm between the commander-in-chief’s desires and the current frame of mind of many governors and mayors who will dictate when Americans can begin going back to work. Many of them are increasingly asserting that authority as they brush away questions about reopening with warnings to stay the course.
The University of Washington’s IHME modeling suggests that states including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota and Texas will not hit their worst points until late this month. The President has offered no clarity about how American parents can return to work as an increasing number of school districts announce closures through the end of the year. And this week as Trump focused on steps toward reopening, Democratic governors like Connecticut’s Ned Lamont and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer were moving in the opposite direction, extending their stay-at-home guidance to later dates.
“We must work to keep the curve flat – together as a community. Keep staying home. Keep social distancing,” Lamont tweeted after extending stay-at-home restrictions to at least May 20. “Now is not the time to take our foot off of the accelerator.”
Whitmer, who oversees a state that has the third highest number of Covid-19 cases in the country as of Saturday night, said the state is faced with “dangerously low levels of the medications required to safely place patients on ventilators” – one of the many reasons she extended the stay-at-home order through April 30. Far from relaxing guidelines, she announced new restrictions prohibiting most Michiganders from even going to another residence unless they were caring for a relative or dropping off a child.
“Now is not the time to pull back at all,” Whitmer said as she announced her orders this week. “We are in control of our fate here and it depends on every one of us doing our part … When we all take this seriously we will save lives here in Michigan.”
Democratic New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been sparring with fellow Democrat and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo over who has the authority to close schools, announced Saturday that he would shutter schools for the rest of the year, asking New Yorkers to think about September as “a new era.”
Cuomo said it would be within his legal authority to decide whether to close schools and that the decision would be made by the entire metropolitan region: “There’s been no decision on schools.”
“I don’t understand how you’d start businesses in May, but not open schools until June,” Cuomo said, noting there had been no decision on either. “You have to coordinate the businesses with the schools, because schools do education; schools also do daycare effectively for a large percentage of the New York population.”
Asked about Trump’s hopes for reopening the economy, Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam– who has closed schools until the end of the year and extended his state’s stay-at-home order until June 10 – noted this week that there is a tension between aspirations and backing them up with science.
“There is nobody out there that wants us to get back to our life as normal more than me, but we also have to deal with reality,” Northam said, describing the coronavirus pandemic as “a biological war.” “I’m a doctor, as you know. I understand the importance of keeping people healthy. So I’m looking at the data …. My job as your governor is to keep Virginians safe.”
Following up, Daniel Carey, Virginia’s secretary of health and human resources, was blunt as he outlined the state’s hurdles for getting back to normal: from the long delays in test results, to the “national shortage” in testing, to the shortage in supplies to conduct the tests, to the fact that the state has primarily been testing in nursing homes and hospitals, rather than the community at large.
Republican governors have sounded similar warnings.
Asked about the social distancing guidelines, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who has been among the most proactive governors in the country, said, “We’ve got to keep doing it.”
Unlike Trump, who has said mass testing may not be necessary, DeWine said “robust testing” would be “absolutely necessary to get people back to work.”
“We’re doing well, but we can’t let this monster up,” DeWine said on CNN’s Newsroom on Friday. His stay-at-home order extends to May 1, and when asked who would make the call on reopening the economy, DeWine said, “Historically, health issues like this are handled by governors, they are handled by mayors, and I think that’s generally what people expect.”
On Friday after Massachusetts had its single biggest day for new cases, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker cautioned that the state was “still on the upward slope” and was about to enter “the most difficult period we are going to face.” Models indicate that the peak could hit around April 20, he said, depending on the extent to which everyone stays home, practices good personal hygiene and keeps their distance from one another.
“If we do not see a flattening in the daily cases and new hospitalizations, we may need to make some adjustments in our planning and we will,” said Baker, who has extended his stay-at-home guidance through May 4.
And while the President contended during his Friday briefing that he controls the process for reopening the economy, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a Democrat, sharply contradicted that assertion during his Friday night briefing, hours after Los Angeles County – with a population of 10 million people – extended stay-at-home orders until at least May 15.
“We will be in charge of those decisions,” said Garcetti, stating that the call would be made as a region in consultation with other cities, counties and the governor. He added that the decision would hinge on figuring out the percentage of people who have been sickened or been carriers of Covid-19 based on antibody and other tests. The LA mayor, who has been talking daily with other mayors across America, added that before cities can resume business-as-usual, they “need the Feds to act faster and give deeper aid,” arguing it “has not been enough” and “it has not come quickly enough.”
The pain is particularly acute in Los Angeles, where nearly half of Angelenos said they have either been laid off or had their hours reduced, according to a survey released Saturday by Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles.
“If you want to get the economy open, Mr. President, Congress, any mayor – do the work of getting the public health professionals who can track and trace, get us the tests so we can have the blood tests to know who’s immune and who’s not. And so the people who are not can properly distance and potentially work in environments with new rules.”
Garcetti also dismissed the idea of opening up the country in a piecemeal fashion with different sets of rules for different areas, stating that it would be “dangerous” to have different standards in different parts of the country.
“This is something that will require national leadership, it is not something we can wall off, keep away, enforce at gunpoint. Those things would be ridiculous,” Garcetti said, noting there was no way to put enough professionals on the border to keep non-essential people from driving across state lines. “We are not going to be able to build a wall around Los Angeles or California.”
A perception gap
For many weeks now, the President has appeared to live in a different reality about the nation’s coronavirus prognosis than what the governors and mayors on the front lines are experiencing, a perception gap that suggests looming confrontations with local officials who do not share the President’s eagerness to reopen the country for business by May.
That perception gap has persisted since the height of delusion when Trump made his now abandoned pronouncement that he hoped to see the pews full on Easter Sunday – which was later described as aspirational – to his continued insistence the nation’s patchwork coronavirus testing system, with its substantial rate of false negatives, “is the best in the world.”
Trump’s alternate reality was evident in a confrontation with CNN’s Jim Acosta during a briefing Friday when the President seemed incensed at the notion that nurses, doctors and hospitals are still saying they need ventilators and protective equipment.
He demanded to know who was saying such things, despite impassioned pleas daily on television and social media from medical professionals, nurses and nursing homes in different hot spots for more personal protective equipment (not to mention all the resource, equipment and ventilator sharing that is going on collaboratively among states).
Trump dismissed those reports of PPE shortages Friday as “fake news.” During the same briefing, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn was up at the podium in the White House briefing room offering guidance to medical practitioners that they could begin reusing cloth gowns that could be laundered, conjuring up images of operating rooms in previous centuries. Hahn also said the FDA had authorized two companies who will supply machines to sterilize N95 masks so they could be reused.
During his news conference Friday, Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said the most pressing question of the pandemic at this stage is when worldwide companies and companies across America “will be able to ramp up production fast enough to get enough PPE.”
“It’s something we’re handling at a state level but that other states are trying to deal with — that every one of my fellow governors is talking about on every one of our, so far twelve, conference calls with all the governors,” said Hogan, who chairs the National Governors Association. “It’s what you hear about every single day in every press conference with the President and vice president. It’s the number one problem that we have today is the lack of PPE.”
In that regard, the state’s governors have served as real time fact-checkers of the President’s optimistic announcements. On Saturday, New Jersey officials reiterated the state’s desperate need for ventilators and personal protective equipment, as the commissioner of the state’s department reported that there are 61 ventilators available in state warehouses at a time when their models predict state hospitalizations will peak at 15,922.
“We have very few ventilators left right now. … We’re literally at the edge” in terms of ventilator supply, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said Saturday in Trenton.
At the time of his midday announcement, Murphy said there were 3,599 new cases of coronavirus in the state, bringing the statewide total to 58,151 – the second highest number in the nation behind New York state.
“We’re not in the end zone folks, we cannot spike any footballs,” he said, as he described progress in flattening the curve.
Cuomo, whose state has been hit harder than any state in the nation, said the number of deaths in his state were “stabilizing at a horrific rate,” hovering between 777 and 799 over the past few days.
“People ask when is it over?” Cuomo said, adding that many Americans are living with that same question. “Every time you wake up, you say when does this nightmare end?”
People are asking him for “some certainty, some closure, some control of my life back,” he said. Confronting the question about the President’s desire to reopen the economy, Cuomo took pains to note they have been working “hand in glove,” complimenting Trump for being responsive to New York’s needs: “He’s done it quickly and he’s done it efficiently.”
When outlining what the federal government could do to help New York, he noted that a true reopening of the economy doesn’t happen without his state.
“You think you’re going to reopen the economy without the engine of the New York Metropolitan area? You’re kidding yourself,” Cuomo said.
But at a time of great uncertainty, New York’s governor said the best course for moving forward will be to keep politics out of the discussion, especially in a presidential year. The dialogue over reopening sooner or faster, he said, is “corrosive and destructive.”
“If we don’t stop it, it will feed on itself,” he said.
“Winston Churchill said, ‘Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning,’” Cuomo said Saturday in his briefing. “I think that’s a fair statement of where we are now.”