States band together to take next step against coronavirus

Michigan Office of the Governor/AP
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the state during a speech in Lansing on April 16, 2020. Michigan is one of seven Midwestern states coordinating on reopening their economies.
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For America’s governors, one thing has become clear during the past few weeks: These next steps will be exceedingly difficult.

Nothing has tested governors like COVID-19. It stretches across the entire country and has proved hard to control. But opening up will be much harder than shutting down, as governors compete for equipment and struggle to maintain health standards in the face of protests, costs, and skyrocketing unemployment.

Why We Wrote This

All of a sudden, all over America, governors are forming coronavirus partnerships with neighboring states. Why? Because states need to actually get things done.

No wonder they feel they could use a little backup. Governors nationwide are forming regional partnerships to help think through how to reopen responsibly and strategically. It’s an extension of how governors often operate – relying on one another in emergencies.

But it’s also a reminder that, even in partisan times, governors are the ultimate fix-it crew, judged by getting things done. “We know we need each other’s expertise, support, ideas, troubleshooting,” says David Postman, chief of staff to the governor of Washington state. The hope is that it could have a lasting effect. Should states face something like this again, he adds, “let’s go back and remember what we did in 2020.”

David Postman was looking forward to his first day off in more than six weeks. As chief of staff to the governor of Washington state – where the novel coronavirus burst early in the United States – he figured the Easter weekend might provide that opportunity.

It was not to be. Instead, he spent the weekend teleconferencing and texting with his counterparts in Oregon and California. The three chiefs of staff were working on a formal collaboration between their West Coast states, and the governors wanted to move quickly. Rumblings were coming from President Donald Trump about an upcoming decision to reopen states’ economies.

“We need to be out there. We want to show people that we are working together,” says Mr. Postman, recalling the urgency of the moment.

Why We Wrote This

All of a sudden, all over America, governors are forming coronavirus partnerships with neighboring states. Why? Because states need to actually get things done.

On Monday morning, the governors – all of them Democrats – agreed to guidelines for reopening their economies, including a decline in the rate of the virus’s spread, more testing, and protecting vulnerable populations. The same day, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, announced a coalition of Northeastern states, followed later in the week by a bipartisan Great Lakes group.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

On one hand, states cooperate on a daily basis, from local agreements on transport to larger ones that affect regions – such as Eastern states capping greenhouse gases and Western ones sharing Colorado River water. And when hurricanes, fires, or floods hit, states are quick to send firefighters and utility trucks.

But nothing is testing governors like COVID-19. It stretches across the entire country, and it is unpredictable and harder to control. While governors say they will rely on science to open up their economies, the science is not so clear. And opening up will be harder than shutting down, as governors compete for equipment and struggle to maintain health standards in the face of mounting pushback, costs, and skyrocketing unemployment.

Al Drago/Reuters
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence watch a video of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaking during the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House in Washington April 19, 2020.

To this point, that is the key question binding these partnerships: How do they reopen responsibly and strategically? For instance, when is it OK to allow elective surgeries, or how to conduct contact tracing? The coalitions are a reminder that even as the “political poison” in Congress has “leaked” into the states, relationships among governors are “nothing like it is in Washington,” says former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean.

Members of Congress are graded on speeches and votes, he explains. Governors, on the other hand, “get graded on what you’ve done. Period.”

That means getting the next steps right. And governors know they’ll need one another.

“The effect of this pandemic is so much more widespread than any other calamity, or emergency, or crisis in anyone’s memory – and its path and duration are hard to predict,” says John Weingart, director of the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “No one wants restrictions relaxed too soon, but what nobody knows is the definition of ‘too soon.’”

Remember Dick Thornburgh

Emergency planning is the very first thing new governors learn about when they gather after Election Day for training by the National Governors Association. A telling example for the newbies: Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh. In 1979, after less than three months in office, he had to deal with the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant.

States should be able to count on federal help with resources, guidance, and expertise, Mr. Weingart says. On Thursday, Congress passed nearly $500 billion in coronavirus-related aid on top of $2.5 trillion already passed.

But generally, “states would prefer to rely on each other, as opposed to the federal government,” says Raymond Scheppach, former executive director of the National Governors Association. “They understand each other and they’ll get answers quicker.” They even have a formal compact that allows them to share assistance during emergencies – including smokejumpers, National Guardsmen, and equipment.

In today’s crisis, regional cooperation is “the only way to do it,” says Mr. Kean, a popular two-term governor in the 1980s. What if New Jersey were to open its beaches before New York? he posits. “All the people in New York are going to come to our beaches.”

He and Democrat Mario Cuomo, a former New York governor, met at least once a month over dinner or lunch. They became close friends. Good relationships with the governors of Massachusetts and North Carolina also led to the governors “stealing” ideas from one another, he says.

That same approach must apply now, many governors say. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts spoke in a local TV interview Monday about the need to get over “the baloney and the noise” of partisan politics. “We’re all in this together and we need to behave and act like that,” he said, rattling off the names of his counterparts from Maine to New Jersey, most of whom are Democrats.

Michael Conroy/AP
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb answers questions at the Statehouse in Indianapolis on March 24, 2020. His state has joined a regional coronavirus partnership.

Regional cooperation is vital, he said last week, given how integrated New England states’ economies are. About 250,000 out-of-state drivers enter Massachusetts on an average weekday, including nearly 150,000 commuters from New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

“Part of the planning also requires listening to and learning from our neighboring states,” Governor Baker said, though he emphasized that he would always act first and foremost in the interest of Massachusetts citizens.

That is the balancing act ahead – weighing one state’s needs, and even counties within states, against the needs of neighbors. The point was stressed by the seven Midwestern governors who formed a bipartisan coalition in the broader Great Lakes area. (The group includes Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana.)

“Phasing in sectors of our economy will be most effective when we work together as a region,” they said in an April 16 statement. “This doesn’t mean our economy will reopen all at once, or that every state will take the same steps at the same time. But close coordination will ensure we get this right.”

Relationship with D.C.

Some governors have butted heads with the president over his authority, over shortages of tests and personal protective equipment, and his encouragement of protesters to “liberate” certain Democratic states from restrictions. But they have generally praised the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its expertise and Vice President Mike Pence for his outreach. And Wednesday saw California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom – who has led the Democratic “resistance” against the president – touting a “very good phone call” with President Trump. More testing swabs are on the way, the president assured him.

In that way, the cooperation between states is not just about filling federal gaps, suggests Mr. Weingart. “It seems clear that the effect of the virus is different in different parts of the country, or on a different schedule, and it’s a healthy response for states to band together in some instances.”

This week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that six Southeastern states, all led by Republican governors, are also forming a coalition to share ideas about reopening. They are moving more quickly and broadly to loosen restrictions than their Democratic counterparts, though Colorado’s Democratic governor announced he will let his state’s stay-at-home order expire next week and allow businesses to reopen with restrictions.

Mr. Scheppach expects that governors will become closer because of this challenge, and hopes their efforts will lead to greater cooperation in the future. So far, the American public has given governors high marks for their handling of the crisis, with 76% of Democrats and 73% of Republicans praising their state’s governor, according to a Monmouth University poll released last month.

“We know we need each other’s expertise, support, ideas, troubleshooting,” says Washington state’s Mr. Postman. Should states face something like this again, “let’s go back and remember what we did [to collaborate] in 2020.”

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed to this report from Boston.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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