Facing a pandemic of unknown consequences, state and local governments have joined forces with the federal government in an attempt to slow the spread of Covid-19 by shutting down all but essential activities in most of the United States.

As “social distancing” has become a national byword, schools have closed and public gatherings are banned throughout the country.

Sports seasons have been canceled or postponed. Live entertainment, movie theaters, gyms, zoos and ski resorts have been shuttered. Restaurants have closed or been limited to takeout. Many churches are empty. Political campaigning is confined to social media and television.

State and local governments responded to the crisis while President Donald Trump was denying the existence of a pandemic.

Thirty-five state governors declared public health emergencies in response to the deadly coronavirus before Trump declared a national emergency on March 13 and the Federal Reserve tried to put a brake on the free fall of the equity markets by reducing interest rates to near zero.

The president’s belated declaration was welcomed in the states because it allows utilization of the Stafford Act, a federal law governing disaster-relief efforts. The declaration will make $50 billion in emergency funding available to states and territories.

But this was just the beginning. Bipartisan congressional legislation will provide $8.3 billion in fiscal relief for millions of Americans, a down payment on a $1 trillion economic stimulus package taking shape on Capitol Hill with encouragement from the White House.

“We want to go big,” Trump told a White House news conference on March 17.

On St. Patrick’s Day, as the U.S. death toll from Covid-19 reached 100, Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin proposed sending direct cash payments to most Americans.

“We’re looking at sending checks to Americans immediately,” Mnuchin said. “And I mean now, in the next two weeks.”

Health experts cheered the federal response, even while saying it was overdue.

President Trump was first asked about the coronavirus on Jan. 22 while at Davos, the annual gathering of rich-world countries. Answering a question from CNBC’s Joe Kernen, he said he was “not at all” concerned about the possibility of a pandemic.

“It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control,” Trump said. “It’s going to be just fine.”

On Jan. 28, two former members of the Trump administration, Luciano Boro and Scott Gottlieb, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal under the headline: “Act Now to Prevent an American Epidemic.”

But the president continued to minimize the impact of the virus as governors in California, New York, Ohio and Washington and mayors of major cities tried to find ways to contain its spread. On Feb. 24 Trump tweeted: “Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.”

The following day White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow announced that Covid-19 was contained, “I won’t say airtight but pretty close to airtight.”

Such misplaced optimism was costly. As the Economist observed, “the crucial early weeks when [the United States] could have prepared for the disease were squandered in a country with some of the world’s best epidemiologists and physicians.”

It didn’t help that many testing kits for the disease sent out by the usually competent Centers of Disease Control proved defective.

On March 12, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert at the National Institutes of Health, gave congressional testimony in which he acknowledged the defectiveness of the kits and spoke to a larger issue. “The system is not really geared to what we need right now,” he said. “That is a failing. It is a failing, let’s admit it.”

The future course of the virus in the United States is unknown, although some scientists are encouraged by the recent drop in Covid-19 cases in South Korea, which has tested 270,000 people.

Epidemiologists at the CDC recently prepared four scenarios in the United States, ranging from 200,000 to 1.7 million deaths from Covid-19. The highest figure presumed minimal efforts to contain the virus.

The Economist has described a “plausible scenario” in which a fifth of Americans contract Covid-19 and have a 0.5 percent fatality rate. This would mean 327,000 deaths, nine times the number of a typical influenza season.

Whatever history’s verdict may be on the Trump administration’s response to the disease, the U.S. system of federalism enabled states and local government to respond quickly when the federal government was slow off the mark.

Under federalism power is divided between the central government and its states or provinces, as in the United States and Canada. It enables states and local governments to wield extraordinary powers in emergency situations.

“The authority is immense, and it is extensive,” James Hodge, law professor and director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University, told Stateline.

On Monday, March 9, as President Trump tweeted, “Nothing is shut down,” local officials in California’s Silicon Valley banned all public gatherings under the threat of legal penalties.

The next day Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) of New York deployed the National Guard to New Rochelle, a small city north of New York City where Covid-19 is rampant.

These actions helped arouse the public to the dangers of the virus even as the threat was minimized by the White House.

Cuomo and Governors Michael DeWine (R) of Ohio, Jay Inslee (D) of Washington and Gavin Newsom (D) of California, are among the governors who have acted forcefully to deal with the impact of the disease.

In a state with the most Covid-19 deaths, Inslee on Feb. 29 was the first governor to declare a state emergency. He has bluntly urged Washingtonians to observe social distancing, tweeting those who refused to comply: “Your actions could kill someone.”

Gov. Newsom has been outspoken on social distancing and also warned against price gouging of vulnerable seniors. On March 16 he issued an executive order urging local governments to halt evictions until May 31 if tenants are unable to pay their rent.

In Ohio, Gov. DeWine defied a court order and cited “an unprecedented health crisis” in postponing the March 17 statewide primary election a day before it was scheduled to take place.

“...To conduct an election...would force poll workers and voters to place themselves at an unacceptable health risk of contracting coronavirus,” DeWine tweeted.

Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maryland have also postponed primaries.

Gov. Cuomo has been creative. In addition to deploying the National Guard to New Rochelle, he has directed state prison inmates to manufacture hand sanitizer, which they can do cheaply.

More significantly, Cuomo has called on President Trump to deploy the Army Corps of Engineers to start erecting field hospitals to contend with the spreading coronavirus crisis.

“It’s only a matter of time before our state’s ICU beds fill up,” Cuomo tweeted, referring to hospital intensive care units. “The federal government must act.”

On Wednesday, Trump announced he was sending a 1,000-bed hospital ship to New York.

State legislatures are trying to ensure that state agencies and local governments have extra money to respond to the pandemic.

A list of state actions, updated daily, can be found on this National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) website.

States are struggling. “COVID-19 is proving to be a unique medical, economic and social disrupter,” NCSL said, “States are absorbing unplanned and, at this point, unknown costs as they work to control the spread of the virus...”

National costs are also unknown but potentially devastating. Mnuchin reportedly told U.S. senators working on the economic package that the unemployment rate, could soar from its present enviable number of 3.5 percent to 20 percent, a rate not seen since the Great Depression.

In this milieu it’s important to keep people fed. School districts throughout the country have instituted “grab-and-go” programs where lunches can be picked up at designated schools. In areas of high poverty, these lunches are sometimes the main meal of the day for children.

Another bright side is the reemergence of bipartisanship in Congress and state legislatures. Deep-red Alabama and deep-blue Hawaii simultaneously appropriated extra funds to deal with the pandemic, as have 13 other states.

Covid-19 does not distinguish among Democrats, Republicans and independents.

This is the time for concerted actions from all levels of government.

-- Lou Cannon

COVID-19 Legislation, Regulation Spikes in States

As of March 18, at least 27 states had introduced and 9 had enacted bills or resolutions this year concerning coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19, according to LexisNexis State Net. The majority of the legislation makes appropriations for combatting the disease. Several of the measures also deal with insurance coverage for COVID-10 testing and treatment or employee sick leave. Thirty-five states have also proposed or taken regulatory action, most of which provides guidance for insurers and pharmacies. (The number of legislative and regulatory actions are up significantly from two weeks ago.)

 Source: LexisNexis State Net



To our readers,

Given our historic national crisis, most of this edition of the State Net Capitol Journal is focused on the wide array of efforts being undertaken by state and local officials to deal with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. That said, we will also do our best to keep you informed of other important actions from our statehouses while we faithfully stick to shelter-in-place requirements and other best practices aimed at flattening the curve of the spread of this deadly virus. So please be safe, be smart and let’s all work together to get through this with as little harm as possible.

 -- State Net Capitol Journal Managing Editor Rich Ehisen