As virus cases surge, elected officials resist restrictions
With the coronavirus coming back with a vengeance across the country and the U.S. facing a long, dark winter, many governors and other elected officials are showing little appetite for imposing the kind of lockdowns and large-scale business closings seen last spring.
Some also continue to resist issuing statewide mask rules.
Among the reasons given: public fatigue, fear of doing more damage to already-crippled businesses, lack of support from Washington, and the way efforts to tame the virus have become fiercely politicized.
“I think that governors and mayors are, again, in a really tough spot. The American population is emotionally and economically exhausted," Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
To sure, there are exceptions: Breaking ranks with her colleagues in one of the most aggressive steps seen in recent weeks, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico imposed a two-week stay-at-home order Friday, saying the state is at a breaking point.
“We are in a life-or-death situation, and if we don’t act right now, we cannot preserve the lives, we can’t keep saving lives, and we will absolutely crush our current health care system and infrastructure,” she said.
And Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Friday ordered a two-week “freeze” that will limit restaurants and bars to takeout only and close gyms, museums, pools, movie theaters and zoos. All businesses will be required to close their offices to the public and mandate work-from-home “to the greatest extent possible.”
But governors in many other states, such as New York, Maryland, Virginia and Minnesota, have taken more incremental measures, such as restricting the size of gatherings, making businesses close early, restricting capacity or cutting off alcohol sales earlier in the evening.
Increasingly alarmed public health officials and medical experts say time is running out as hospitals buckle under the crush of cases and Americans approach Thanksgiving, a period of heavy travel and family gatherings that are all but certain to fuel the spread of the virus.
The coronavirus is blamed for 10.6 million confirmed infections and almost a quarter-million deaths in the U.S., with the closely watched University of Washington model projecting nearly 439,000 dead by March 1. Deaths have climbed to about 1,000 a day on average.
New cases per day are soaring, shattering records over and over and reaching an all-time high on Thursday of over 153,000.
While over the course of the outbreak it has been Republican governors who tended to push harder to keep businesses open, the latest resistance to lockdowns and similarly strict measures appears to cut across political lines, with the Democrats in charge in states like Colorado, Pennsylvania and North Carolina expressing no interest in taking such steps.
Nevada Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak has repeatedly argued that containing the virus is largely up to individuals.
“Some people are going to ask, ‘Why not limit retail, or casino resorts, or restaurants right now?’ That’s a fair question,” Sisolak said. “That is the tightrope of trying to balance controlling the COVID-19 spread, protecting our hospitals from surges, and at the same time, not destroying and shutting down our economy.”
In Texas, which this week became the first state to surpass 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has emphasized new treatments and vaccines that are expected to become available soon.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has taken an even harder line against new restrictions, suing after El Paso closed nonessential businesses because of a surge so severe that mobile morgues are being brought in. An appeals court Thursday temporarily lifted the shutdown.
Officials have gotten pushback from some constituents, especially business owners who fear for their ability to make a living.
In Ohio, Bahram Akradi, founder, chairman and CEO of Life Time health clubs, objected when the governor added gyms to a list of businesses that could be shuttered if cases continue to rise.
“Another shutdown would just be completely devastating and simply unjust,” Akradi said. He added: “The damage of not allowing people to have healthy activity is much more than the gain."
In Montana, where cases are up more than 16% in the past week, Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, said he is wary of imposing tougher statewide restrictions without additional federal aid to unemployed individuals and small businesses.
“I never wanted to punish the businesses that are doing right in this pandemic to keep their employees and customers safe. Shutting down those businesses would do just that,” he said.
The political perils of statewide mandates have played out in Wisconsin.
That state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, issued a “safer at home” order in March that was challenged by Republican lawmakers and struck down by the conservative-controlled state Supreme Court in May.
Evers’ other attempts at curbing the virus — a mask mandate and limits on occupancy indoors — also faced legal challenges.
“They’re not in favor of mandating anything,” Evers said of Republicans who control the Legislature. “That makes it more difficult.”
The result has been a hodgepodge of local limits across the state, with some of the most strict ones in places like Milwaukee, which is moving forward with imposing steep fines of between $500 and $5,000 for violations of local health orders.
Other governors have likewise relied on local and county officials to tackle the crisis, creating a patchwork quilt of restrictions around the country. But that strategy has its limits.
In Tennessee, Nashville Mayor John Cooper said he doesn’t plan on reinstating restrictions on the city's honky tonks and other businesses. He said shutting down just one county would probably be ineffective against the virus because the surrounding areas wouldn’t be following the same guidelines.
“We are also subject to what goes on in our state and we can’t keep just our county safe,” Cooper said.
With cases rising rapidly in Mississippi, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said he will not consider a statewide shutdown of businesses. A statewide mask mandate that he imposed expired at the end of September.
“The people of Mississippi can’t just go home, shut down their small businesses, shut down their restaurants, shut down their gyms, shut down other small businesses for six weeks and just think that you can come back six weeks from now, flip a switch and everything is going to be fine,” he said. “That’s not the way the economy works.”
Some economists say the crisis has been falsely portrayed as a choice between the economy and public health. Instead, they argue that the economy cannot recover until the virus is brought under control and people are confident enough to go shopping, eat at restaurants and do other things again.
Some experts have argued, too, that strict but relatively short lockdowns could ultimately result in less economic pain than the half-measures employed now, which have only succeeded in dragging out the crisis.
Dr. Jonathan Quick of the Duke Global Health Institute said governors need to act together because the nation’s current fragmented approach isn’t working.
Ideally, “the way you fight a pandemic is a whole-of-society, a whole-country approach,” Quick said. But in the meantime, he said, governors are “our best hope to prevent catastrophe.”
Dr. Michael Fine, the former director of Rhode Island’s Health Department, said the outbreak requires more aggressive strategies. Closing bars earlier in the evening, he said, “might have worked in July, but there’s not a chance they’ll work now. It’s like taking an eyedropper to a forest fire.”
“Short of very profound lockdowns, I don’t’ think we have a chance of slowing the spread,” Fine said.
Johnson reported from Washington state; Pane reported from Boise, Idaho. AP journalists around the U.S. contributed to this report.