President Trump’s aggressive timeline for reopening the economy could set the White House on a collision course with governors and mayors who seem intent on maintaining social distancing policies beyond the president’s Easter target date if necessary.
Trump’s proposal on Tuesday to ease restrictions by mid-April came as a number of state and local governments have moved in the opposite direction, heeding the advice of public health officials to implement stay-at-home orders and close non-essential businesses to stem the rising number of coronavirus infections.
“You can’t put a timeframe on saving people’s lives,” Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland (R), who chairs the National Governors Association, said Wednesday. “We’re going to make decisions based on the scientists and the facts.”
Trump’s pronouncement came as the White House and Congress headed toward a deal to inject roughly $2 trillion into the economy to stave off a deep recession, and aimed to get the economy up and running following widespread disruption from the global pandemic.
“I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” Trump said Tuesday during a Fox News town hall at the White House, later describing his April 12 target date as a “beautiful timeline.”
But the proposal appeared at odds with the on-the-ground reality in some parts of the country, where governors in both blue and red states, as well as mayors closer to the frontlines, made clear that their decisions about easing restrictions would be guided foremost by public health considerations.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), whose state has become the country’s epicenter of the crisis with nearly 31,000 cases, said Wednesday that coronavirus may peak in New York on April 15 – three days after Trump is hoping to see “packed churches all over our country” for Easter service.
In Louisiana, which has the fastest coronavirus growth rate worldwide, Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) warned that New Orleans is scheduled to run out of hospital beds by early April.
“Until we see the curve flattening and we can see daylight at the end of this tunnel,” Edwards said, “it’s hard for me to pick a date on the calendar and say, ‘By this date, we believe we’re going to be out on the other side.’ “
In an apparent rebuke to Trump, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) said Tuesday that his county of roughly 10 million, the most populous in the U.S., would not lift its stay-at-home measure until it was safe to do so.
“We can’t wish coronavirus away – and let me just pause and go off script for a moment,” he said, according to local CBS affiliate KCAL. “Because I know that everybody is hopeful and some are putting out that hope of us being back in churches by Easter or synagogues by Passover of restarting the economy in a couple of weeks.
“I think we owe it to everybody to be straightforward and honest that we will not be back in Los Angeles, we will not be back to that normal in that short period of time,” he said. “I have said to be prepared for a couple of months like this.”
To date, the coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 60,000 and killed more than 820 in the U.S., where governors in every state have declared a state of emergency. According to some estimates, more than 130 million Americans across the country have been urged by governors and mayors to remain at home.
Trump’s Easter target date laid bare the tensions between White House advisors who are eager to get the economy back on track and public health officials who are leery of pegging the recovery efforts to a specific deadline, especially one as close as April 12.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has floated the possibility that a peak number of cases in the U.S. would not arrive until around May 1, appeared to dial back public expectations, saying new federal guidelines would allow for “flexibility in different areas.”
“We need to know what’s going on in those areas of the country where there isn’t an obvious outbreak,” Fauci said at a White House briefing on Tuesday.
In addition to resistance from public health officials, Trump’s aggressive timeline also faces practical obstacles. Some state and local governments have implemented far more stringent measures than the federal government’s voluntary guidelines, creating a fragmented patchwork of safeguards to limit person-to-permission transmission of the virus.
“The U.S. is not like China. We don’t have an all-powerful president,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of public health law at Georgetown University. “We share power between the federal government and the states.”
While the president has clear authority to rescind or alter federal health guidelines, legal experts say state and local officials are not required to follow them if their jurisdiction’s health situation warrants stricter measures.
Analysts believe that if federal and local governments begin to move in dramatically different directions in response to the outbreak, it could trigger a political fight, or perhaps a legal standoff, with implications for the fall elections.
A majority of Americans, 58 percent are optimistic that the economy will recover quickly after the coronavirus abates. But if economic reality fails to match the rosier predictions, Trump could blame the weak recovery on state and local governments’ more stringent public health restrictions.
“I think his biggest leverage is going to be political, to say ‘these people are ruining your local economy for no reason and I tried to stop them,’ ” said Harvard Law professor Glenn Cohen.
Another, albeit less likely, scenario could see Trump take steps that “raise incredibly important problems of federalism,” Gostin said. These might include measures like restricting travel to and from states with a high number of infections, or conditioning federal aid to states based on their degree of compliance with federal policy.
It remains to be seen how a potential conflict might be resolved, but what is clear is that Trump cannot simply force local governments to adopt federal guidelines wholesale.
“The president could not simply order local schools or businesses to reopen,” said Robert Tsai, a constitutional expert and law professor at American University. “He can’t countermand state and local governments, which have significant ‘police power’ to deal with its citizens’ health, welfare, and morals.”