At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Louisiana State Representative Randal Gaines said he immediately turned to his governor, Democrat John Bel Edwards — not the federal government.
“I didn’t think the federal government would have enough on-the-ground information about the particular circumstances that Louisiana was dealing with,” he told CBS News. “[Governors] are the ones that are giving the timely information. They’re there where the rubber meets the road.”
It’s a heightened role for governors of both parties, one that has put them on the policy frontlines in the battle against coronavirus. And while a majority of states have reduced bars and restaurants to take-out or delivery, 22 states have gone further and declared mandatory stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders for their citizens to help curb further spreading of the virus.
The current framework of laws reaffirms that governors and states hold the main levers of control during disasters, according to CBS News legal analyst Jonathan Turley.
“I know the Constitution itself leaves the primary authority over public health, as well as police powers, to the states. The president’s authority is actually more limited than people suggest,” Turley said. “If a governor has imposed a shelter-in-place order, the president does not have authority to override that order.”
Democratic California Governor Gavin Newsom was the first to implement a “shelter-in-place” order on March 19. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, another Democrat, was next, followed days later by Republican Governors Mike DeWine of Ohio and Eric Holcomb of Indiana.
“There’s a social contract here… People, I think, recognize the need to do more and meet his moment,” Newsom said when he announced the order last week. “This is not a permanent state, this is a moment in time. If we are to be criticized, let us be criticized for taking this moment seriously. Let us be criticized for going full force and meeting the virus head-on.”
Holcomb echoed a similar sentiment to constituents at his own press conference. “You must be part of the solution, not the problem,” he said.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has not issued a strict lockdown yet, but has closed all non-essential businesses and has repeatedly called on people to stay home.
“It is critically important that every single person remains vigilant and continues doing their part by staying in place, in their homes, as much as possible so that we can break the back of this virus,” Hogan, a Republican and chairman of the National Governors Association, said on Wednesday.
“The nation’s governors are working hard to speak with a unified voice and to drive further decisive action from our leaders in Washington… What we do know is that it is not going to be over in a matter of days or even weeks,” Hogan added, a timeline that is at odds with the president’s goal to “reopen” the country’s economy by Easter, which falls on April 12.
Trump signaled on Thursday that the administration will provide further guidance to governors this weekend to get businesses running around Easter, but has also previously floated a staggered schedule to reopen businesses in states with fewer cases. Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the coronavirus task force, said at a press conference on Thursday that 19 states have less than 200 cases.
“I’m not going to do anything rash or hastily, I don’t do that. But the country wants to get back to work,” Trump said on Wednesday. “And it could be we’ll do sections of our country. There are big sections of our country that are very little affected by what’s taken place, then there are other sections that are very heavily affected.”
Still, while a bipartisan group of governors in the most-affected states now look to Congress and the White House to help supplement their efforts, other state leaders in less-affected areas have not yet mandated that all their residents stay home.
A majority of counties in Kansas have issued their own stay-at-home orders. While Democrat Governor Laura Kelly has yet to issue a statewide order, she said on Monday that type of order “may indeed become unavoidable in the coming days.”
Republican Governor Tate Reeves of Mississippi issued an executive order on Tuesday that limits the number of people allowed to gather, but considered a broad list of businesses as “essential” and would not limit their amount of visitors. He has not yet issued a statewide stay-at-home order and on Thursday framed his executive order as a “floor” for local mayors and leaders to build on.
“We want to allow them to do what’s best for their communities. Because much like the federal government is not mandating to all states exactly how we respond to this… what is necessary perhaps, in states like New York or California is not necessary in places like Mississippi,” he said at a press conference.
Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has also not called for a state-wide lockdown, despite his state having more than 2,300 cases. He has closed schools and limited restaurants and bars to take-out or delivery — but like Mr. Trump, he has consistently cited the economic costs in issuing more orders that would close businesses.
“The unemployment numbers in the state of Florida? You know, we’d get 200, 500, 1,000 a day for most of the time up until this point. Now we’re getting 15,000 to 20,000 unemployment claims a day. What’s going to happen to those people?” he said at a Wednesday press conference. “What’s going to happen to them if they can’t put food on the table, if they can’t pay their rent, or they can’t pay their bills, or take care of their families?”
The approach has resulted in some criticism from Florida legislators, as well as former Vice President Joe Biden, who criticized DeSantis in a statement on Wednesday.
“While other large states continue to take strong, urgent, and sweeping action to stop the spread of COVID-19, Florida has not. I urge Governor DeSantis to let the experts speak to the public and explain why this is the case,” Biden said.
“In this moment of growing uncertainty and anxiety, Floridians want — and deserve — to hear from the public health officials leading the charge,” he added.