Eisenberg's sandwich shop, New York City. Photo by Flickr user Eden, Janine and Jim, licensed under CC BY.
If states are the laboratory of American democracy, as Justice Louis Brandeis once observed, then we are in the middle of a fascinating political experiment in the way governors are responding to COVID-19.
The specific results will not be clear for several years. But I am willing to take an educated guess about what we will see: Policies that the electorate embraces in one state will be very much like the policies that cost governors their jobs, and maybe their careers, in others. The diversity in the way governors have dealt with the ebbs and surges in COVID-19 infections reflects the diversity of the states themselves – but they don’t always match up.
Vermont is a state so liberal that it sends Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist, to Washington. It has also been one of the nation’s most visible success stories (success being relative) in dealing with the pandemic. The state can credit stringent quarantine and social distancing restrictions that its leaders imposed early, relaxed sparingly and reimposed aggressively when the disease spiked again this fall. Surprisingly, except to those familiar with Vermont’s idiosyncratic politics, the principal leader imposing the policies was a Republican: Gov. Phil Scott. Although these policies hit hard at a state economy that is highly dependent on out-of-state tourists, Scott won re-election to his third two-year term last month in a rout over progressive Democrat David Zuckerman.
California rivals Vermont as the nation’s most left-leaning body politic. Its Gov. Gavin Newsom was the first in the nation to order lockdowns last March as the pandemic first took hold. Even during the late-summer lull, Newsom kept his state’s big theme parks and other major attractions closed. Now, in the face of a massive surge that is threatening to overrun his state’s hospitals, Newsom has ordered more than three-quarters of California’s population to stay home and avoid contact with members of other households, with only limited exceptions. (Two of those exceptions, thanks in part to legal action, are for political protests and religious services.)
But Californians are now in open revolt, in part because Newsom himself was unmasked – literally – while attending a social event at a glitzy Napa Valley eatery, even as he told the public to mind its q’s and peas at home. Sheriffs in some counties are refusing to enforce his edicts. A group of legislators has urged him to reverse course and allow restaurants to continue socially distanced indoor dining. Not long ago, many observers saw Newsom as a rising national star in the Democratic Party. Now his own prospects for reelection in 2022 are in question – assuming he makes it to 2022. A recall petition drive that could turn him out of office as soon as next year is off to a fast start, in spite of the fact that Newsom’s rules make it difficult to gather signatures face to face.
In New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut down indoor dining this week, even as an East Coast snowstorm bore down on the metropolis and its thousands of struggling eateries, or at least those that have not already closed their doors. It remains to be seen how voters will respond if Cuomo seeks a fourth term in 2022. By that November, the pandemic may have been over in practice for a year or more, if vaccinations are distributed effectively enough in 2021. The economic consequences, however, will linger far longer.
The governors of neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut – like Cuomo, Democrats – have refrained from shutting their restaurant dining rooms entirely as the cold weather set in. Their calculations of costs and benefits, either for their states or their personal careers, clearly differ from Cuomo’s and Newsom’s. Gov. Phil Murphy must face New Jersey voters next November; Connecticut's Ned Lamont, like Cuomo, will be on the ballot in 2022 if he chooses to run again.
In my home state, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has flatly promised to keep restaurants open for on-site dining. “We’ve got your back,” he told staff at a steakhouse in Palm Beach County, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. But DeSantis, a Republican, is getting harsher press treatment for his stance than his Democratic counterparts in the Northeast are seeing. The headline on that online article read: “Gov. DeSantis urges dining at restaurants and touts safety as pandemic rages.”
Another article last weekend, citing – or, rather, misconstruing – recommendations from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, asserted that “Florida is among the states being asked to step up its efforts, efforts — such as shutting down bars and indoor dining — that run contrary to what Gov. Ron DeSantis has espoused.”
Actually, the Task Force report cited in that story does not ask Florida to shut down indoor restaurant dining, although it notes that socially distanced dining rooms are higher risk than carryout or delivery services. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued similar guidance.) Consistent with the Trump administration’s policy of letting governors take the lead in deciding on restrictions, even when they disagree with the president’s preferences, the report simply advises state and local officials to “increase physical distancing through significant reduction in capacity or closure of public and private indoor space, including restaurants and bars.”
It also observed, incorrectly, that “We are also seeing clear improvement in many European countries that implemented strong public and private mitigation but preserved schooling; the majority of the United States is not mitigating similarly.” Even as that weekly report was being written, and in the days that followed, European countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands imposed more drastic controls on their citizenry to deal with surging infections and deaths that mirror the American figures on a per-capita basis in many places. But those controls, like ours, vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
In the end, public health officials make recommendations based on their fields of view and of expertise. They are not charged with balancing their COVID-19 concerns against other considerations of life and of livelihood. That is the responsibility of elected officials. It will be voters who pass judgment on how well they carried out that responsibility. The results of this mass democratic experiment in public policy and politics are going to be exceedingly interesting to watch.