Governors Team Up to Plan for Reopening, Rebuffing Trump
(Bloomberg) -- Some of the nation’s most powerful governors said they would form regional alliances to coordinate reopening schools and businesses after the coronavirus outbreak subsides, setting up a potential clash with the president, who says that he alone has that authority.
“We will be driven by facts, we will be driven by evidence, we will be driven by science, we will be driven by our public health advisers, we will be driven by the collaborative spirit that defines the best of us at this important moment,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said as he announced a partnership with Washington state and Oregon.
With health data suggesting that the spread of the coronavirus may be nearing a plateau in the U.S., public officials are under growing pressure to chart a path back to normality. The longer the state-by-state lockdowns last, the more economic hardship there will be. But dropping stay-at-home restrictions too soon might risk a second wave of infections.
That tension was on display Monday as two sets of governors -- one on each coast -- said they would coordinate how and when they might gradually ease their restrictions on travel and business. Shortly before both initiatives were announced, President Donald Trump tweeted that he alone had the authority to decide when states would return to normal.
Trump said at a White House briefing on Monday evening that his administration would issue guidance within days for governors who want to begin ease social-distancing practices, and said he hopes to reopen the country “ahead of schedule.”
“We’re very close to completing a plan to open our country. Hopefully, even ahead of schedule,” Trump said. “We will soon finalize new and very important guidelines to give governors the information they need to open their states.”
Roughly 105 million people, or about a third of the U.S. population, live in the 10 states making plans for a post-crisis era.
“The optimum is a geographically coordinated plan,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. “This virus doesn’t understand governmental boundaries.”
Coordination is critical, Cuomo said, to avoid unintended consequences -- such as having thirsty residents of a state where bars are closed driving to another where they’ve been reopened.
The East Coast initiative is in its early stages. Officials from those states -- New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Rhode Island -- provided few details about what criteria they might use to restart a semblance of normal life. A panel will consist of the governors’ chiefs of staff and health and economic officials from each state. Most residents in those states are nearing the one-month mark of having been told to stay home and keep their distance from others.
After the announcement, Massachusetts said it would join the alliance.
Cuomo, in his daily briefing, seemed to agree with Trump that the federal government has the authority to overrule the states. But he questioned why Washington would get to direct the reopening after it delegated closures to the states.
“Let’s see what the federal government’s plan is,” Cuomo said. Trump “left it to the states to close down, and that was a state-by-state decision, without any guidance really,” he said.
Newsom, in his announcement, said he would unveil a framework on Tuesday for lifting California’s stay-home order, including the metrics that would guide that process. Last week, the state’s secretary of Health and Human Services said easing the state’s restrictions would require putting in place a system to test more people for the virus, track new cases as they appear and trace person-to-person contacts that could trigger new outbreaks.
Further details about how to restart California’s economy will come later in the week, Newsom said, along with preliminary figures about how the virus would affect the state’s budget. Oregon and Washington, he said, will craft their own plans, although the basic principles guiding all three states would similar.
Asked whether Trump or the nation’s governors have final say on reopening the economy, Newsom would say only that California still had a strong collaborative relationship with the federal government on the virus fight.
“I have all the confidence in the world, moving forward, that we’ll maintain that collaborative spirit,” he said.
Trump, for his part, said in a Twitter post Monday that he has the power to overrule governors, “open up” states and relax social-distancing practices. The declaration came after economic advisers pressed concerns within the White House about the economic fallout from the shutdown, and as Trump’s patience appeared to fray after earlier ceding to health advisers’ insistence that his initial target date of Easter was too early.
He said he would make a decision “soon” on reopening, “in conjunction with the governors and input from others.” But he added that “it is the decision of the president, and for many good reasons.” He didn’t list any.
What’s the Plan?
Cuomo said he hadn’t spoken to the president about recovery plans, but left open the possibility of ceding state authority to the U.S. if it came up with a workable solution.
“If the federal government comes and says they’re going to substitute a federal plan, well that would then trump the state plan, pardon the pun, if it fit within the Constitution and the law,” he said.
The governors’ collaborations reflect the deep desire of Americans to get back to work, but they come as New York -- now the epicenter of the global outbreak -- continues to post dire statistics about the toll.
New York on Monday eclipsed the grim threshold of 10,000 total deaths from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, after another 671 people died in 24 hours. Before Monday, New York had reported six consecutive days of 700 deaths or more.
Cuomo, in Albany, was joined on a conference call by the other Northeast governors. The recovery must be careful, incremental and guided by experts rather than politics, Cuomo said, and the pandemic won’t be truly “over” until a vaccine is available, which could take as long as 18 months.
Ideally, a plan would also involve widespread testing, he said, to allow those without the virus -- and those who have recovered and may now be resistant to it -- to return to work first.
“You only get an economic recovery if it comes on the back of a health recovery,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said. “As painful as the economic reality is right now, it’s not remotely as painful as it would be if we get the sequencing wrong and we get the timing wrong.”
The continued spread of the virus, while slowing, raises questions about what kind of infection rate would be considered acceptable under normal conditions -- and whether the goal should be to prevent infections entirely or merely contain it enough so that the hospital system can handle the workload.
Cuomo said the restart has to be carried out slowly while keeping an eye on the virus rates.
“You’ll start to open that valve on the economic activity, and you’ll turn that valve very slowly reopening the economy, more essential workers, do it carefully do it slowly and do it intelligently,” he said.
Some data show that conditions are beginning to improve. Hospitalizations continued to flatten, Cuomo said, with total admissions virtually stable at 18,000 and with ICU patients and intubations declining since Sunday. So far, those numbers have been far below the level officials initially braced for.
“We’ve been talking today about the fact that New York believes we have reached a plateau in the increase in the number of cases,” Cuomo said. “They’re not going down, but they’re not going up at the same rate and we believe it’s a ‘plateau.’ That is relatively good news in a world of bad options. We should start looking to ‘reopening.’”
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