President Donald Trump is a skeptic of public-health policies that could harm the economy while saving many thousands of lives. And he has attracted crucial allies among Republican leaders overseeing the movement of millions of Americans.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has resisted enacting orders that would restrict people to their homes — unlike what other large states like New York and California have done. Instead, his office has advised that people older than 65 stay inside. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves also balked, saying the state isn’t China. And Alabama Governor Kay Ivey has said she has no plans for a state shelter-in-place order, so Birmingham approved its own Tuesday.
Other Republicans, like Ohio’s Mike DeWine, have been leading the charge to slow the virus despite the consequences. Economists estimate social distancing could limit infections and prevent as many as 600,000 additional U.S. deaths. That has set off fierce criticism of those following the lead of Trump, who has repeatedly questioned the need, given the economic costs.
“They have failed the people tremendously,” said Mario King, mayor of Moss Point, Mississippi, population 13,300. The lack of action, especially in a state often ranked one of the nation’s unhealthiest, is negligent and irresponsible, he said. “We have a very vulnerable population.”
Trump has said he’d re-evaluate whether to call for people to return to work after his 15-day strategy to limit social contact elapses next week. On Tuesday, he repeatedly talked about the harm a long-term shutdown would have on the nation.
“This cure is worse than the problem,” Trump said. “In my opinion, more people are going to die if we allow this to continue.”
It created an instant schism among leaders in a party that Trump has thus far shaped in his own image. Officials had to balance danger to their constituents against the president’s expressed wishes.
Conservative leaders quickly backed Trump. Jerry Falwell Jr., head of Liberty University in Virginia, is telling students to return to campus, running counter to other universities’ directives to get students off campus because of fears of spreading the coronavirus. Conservative television pundit Glenn Beck said he would rather die than “kill the country.”
Trump’s own medical experts have said that restrictions on movement and commerce are the only way to curb the pandemic within the U.S. Francis Collins, who leads the National Institutes of Health, said in an interview with The Atlantic that the best case is that measures some states have taken will slow the spread of the disease over months rather than weeks. “That way we won’t have an example like Italy in our own country,” he said.
Some Republican governors have been reluctant to issue stay-at-home orders. Iowa’s Kim Reynolds, a Republican, said Tuesday that health data doesn’t warrant Iowans requiring to remain inside except for essential trips, something neighboring Illinois and Wisconsin have mandated. There are over 140 cases in Iowa, according to the state.
“I don’t want Iowans to think I’m making these decisions lightly,” Reynolds said at a news conference. She added that the decision-making was “fluid” as information changes.
In Florida, DeSantis’s reluctance to issue a stay-at-home order has been met with outcry in the state of 21 million people. He instead merely advised older residents stay in their homes and ordered that visitors from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut self-isolate for 14 days.
Several local governments have taken action themselves. Orange County, Florida, with over 1 million residents, and the city of Orlando issued stay-at-home orders and closed non-essential businesses on Tuesday. The City of Miami’s Republican Mayor Francis Suarez joined them effective at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday.
Despite a growing case count in the Miami metropolitan area, DeSantis noted that Florida still has several counties with no confirmed cases, suggesting that a uniform approach would be inappropriate in such a large state.
Yet even DeSantis is expressing frustration with how the administration has handled restrictions on people’s movement. He said he’s repeatedly brought up concerns about flights from New York with the president, who helped DeSantis get elected, and that ultimately only the federal government could limit air travel.
“It does kind of make no sense,” DeSantis said Wednesday in Orlando. “People fly all over the place from some of the hot zones. I mean, y’know, really? How does that make any sense if we’re trying to contain this thing?”
So far the Florida measures were only enforceable in airports. DeSantis said he had decided against setting up road blocks, saying he didn’t want to clog traffic when emergency medical shipments were sorely needed.
City Goes It Alone
Other governors have stressed that they’re different from the states with large urban areas dealing with outbreaks of the virus, making it unnecessary to issue a stay-at-home order.
“Folks, at this point, we have no current plans to do so,” Ivey said on Tuesday, according to local reports. “We have seen other states in the country doing that, as well as other countries. But however, y’all, we are not California, we’re not New York, we aren’t even Louisiana.”
At a Birmingham City Council meeting, local officials spoke passionately about the importance of saving lives versus saving money. Mayor Randall Woodfin, a Democrat who governs a relative dense, predominantly black city, said the virus isn’t discriminating based on location, race, age or political ideology.
“This is spreading all throughout America,” he said. “In our positions, we have two choices: Option one is to take the lead, be assertive and do everything necessary from a public safety standpoint to protect the residents of this city. Option two is do nothing and wait on other people and fall in line.
“I don’t think option two is an option.”
Wade Perry, who leads the Democratic Party in Alabama, said he would like to see leaders in the state follow the advice of health experts.
“It’s not about politics, it’s not about profits, it’s about people,” he said.
Some Democratic governors, like North Carolina’s Roy Cooper, have also stopped short of issuing a stay-at-home order, leading the county that encompasses Charlotte to implement its own. And not all Republican governors are resisting the measures. In Ohio, DeWine this week ordered that residents stay home, adding that the state is at war with the disease.
DeWine said he and Trump agreed that they wanted to get people back to work as soon as possible. But he said the economy can’t recover if hospitals are overwhelmed.
“We save our economy by first saving lives. We have to do it, and we have to do it in that order,” DeWine said during a news conference Tuesday. “When people are dying, when people don’t feel safe, the economy won’t come back.”
West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a Republican, praised President Trump’s actions to fight the spread during a news conference, but said his aim to “get back to work” by Easter was ambitious.
“I hope and pray our President knows something I don’t know,” Justice said.
— With assistance by Janet Lorin, Jennifer Kay, and Katherine Rizzo
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