Barely weeks into a nationwide social distancing effort to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus, politicians, pundits and health experts are at odds over how long the isolation should last. Some are concerned about the economic toll of the shutdown — global markets have sputtered and the U.S. unemployment rate could climb into unprecedented territory. But many say that we’ve only just begun the fight against this novel and deadly virus, and relaxing our stance now could cost an untold number of lives.
President Donald Trump appears eager to get the economy moving again. On Tuesday, the President said he wants to see the American economy “opened up and raring to go by Easter.” That’s on April 12, a little over two weeks away, and an earlier date than even his own health experts recommend. (“I think it’s going to be several weeks,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said Friday.) Even with the current rules in place, nearly 1,000 people have already died of complications related to COVID-19 in the U.S.; that number stands to rise dramatically.
But even if Trump begins encouraging Americans to get back to work, it will be largely up to state and local leaders — especially governors — to chart their own courses. Governor Gavin Newsom of California has said his state’s social distancing measures could last two to three months, while New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said they could last as long as nine months in his state, home to the country’s worst outbreak yet.
“This is not a short-term situation. This is not a long weekend. This is not a week,” Cuomo said Sunday. “The timeline, nobody can tell you. It depends on how we handle it.”
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Why do Cuomo, Newsom and the other 48 governors have such authority? Under the U.S. Constitution, states have “an inherent power to take actions to protect the health and wellbeing” of their residents, says Wendy E. Parmet, director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern University.
In a public health emergency, the federal government’s role is to share information with states, manage resources, and assist in other ways, experts say. And while the federal government could step in if it decides a state isn’t doing enough during such a crisis, it has limited power to intervene if it feels like a state is doing too much.
“In general, there’s very little [federal] authority to reduce measures that are taken by state and local governments,” says Polly Price, professor of law and global health at Emory University. “State and local governments’ primary obligation, their primary responsibility, is the health of their populations. The basic concept underlying federal law that’s related to epidemics, disasters, emergencies — everything there, the concept is to assist states when they’re dealing with the health of their populations.”
However, Trump has ways to coerce states into compliance should he want to restart the American economy despite resistance. He could, for instance, use “the power of the purse,” denying states federal funding or other help if they don’t comply with his wishes.
Trump could also reactivate the federal workforce, getting at least some of the economy moving again without the governors’ help.
Yet Trump’s most powerful tool to get states to go his way may be his megaphone. Some state leaders, like Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, — who suggested that elderly Americans are willing to die for the economy — also want to roll back stay-at-home restrictions despite recommendations from health experts. The President’s words could give those leaders political cover to do just that, says Jon Michaels, a professor at UCLA School of Law. And if some states relax their isolation policies early, it could put pressure on others to do the same, especially as some out-of-work citizens clamor to get their paychecks again.
But Michaels adds that, if Trump decides to push more actively for an economic restart, it could backfire, leading to a deeper public health crisis that causes states to clamp down even further than they already have.
And from a public health point of view, mixed messaging from the federal government and state or local politicians can take a toll of its own, leading people to ignore social distancing guidelines altogether.
“In many ways, it’s the honor system,” says Price. “The government does not have the resources to go track down people and sit outside people’s houses who are already under a quarantine or isolation order and make sure they don’t leave. But in terms of how people react, if you don’t trust the government authorities, and what they are telling you, getting cooperation from the public or controlling fear in the public gets more and more difficult.”
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