As a practical matter, the president and the governors had better work this one out. A fractured effort to reopen the nation would be a lousy effort.
Imagine, if you will, that President Trump announces in two or three weeks that it’s time for life to get back to normal in the United States.
Go ahead, folks! Go to church again, reopen your restaurant, get back to work at the factory, visit Grandma in the nursing home.
Imagine, too, that Gov. J.B. Pritzker — or another governor — says “hell no” to all that.
Stay put right where you are, people! Keep hunkering down at home. Now’s no time to let up on social distancing. The coronavirus is on the run but not beaten.
To whom would you listen? The president or the governor?
Millions of Americans no doubt would take their cue from Trump while others would stick with their state’s governor — and the result could be chaos. Continued efforts to thwart the spread of the virus might be undermined as some people return to their normal lives, even as the economy would be thrown into a conflict-loaded limbo, part open and part closed.
Who calls the shots?
One of the bigger national debates of this week, pumped up by kingly claims made by Trump on Monday, is whether the president or the 50 governors have the constitutional authority to decide when and how states reopen for business.
That’s an excellent academic question, perfect for a law school class. For the record, we’re inclined to side with the governors.
For Trump to claim he has “total authority” to reopen the economy — after he ducked and ran and left it to the states to shut things down — is pathetic. The same goes for the president’s decision Tuesday to suspend U.S. funding to the World Health Organization, which Trump accused of not doing enough to stop the virus at the outset.
You’ve got to be kidding, Mr. President. The WHO didn’t take the virus seriously enough when, just a few weeks ago, you suggested life in America might return to normal by Easter?
We digress. Back to this whole re-opening-the-country conundrum.
As a practical matter, Trump and the governors had better work this one out. A fractured effort to reopen the country would be chaos.
If Trump were to announce, let’s say, that private schools should reopen again, Pritzker would have a tough time sending in cops to shut them down. The governor is going to hammer people for doing something the president says is perfectly fine?
In the same way, Trump could at some point declare Chicago’s public schools should be reopened, but that’s never going to fly until Pritzker, as well as Mayor Lori Lightfoot, agree it’s safe to do so.
In Trump’s mind, he has “total authority” to “call the shots.” In the real world, that will always be a fiction.
Midwest slow to mount regional strategy
In a similar way, Trump’s claim to omnipotence is doing nothing for efforts to create a Midwest regional strategy for reopening the economy, though this kind of teamwork has begun on the East and West coasts. Three of the five states that border Illinois — Indiana, Iowa and Missouri — have Republican governors who are not about to cross Trump by throwing in with a bipartisan group that might settle on a different timeline and agenda.
On the East Coast, the governors of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island and Massachusetts have formed a pact to coordinate their eventual efforts to end pandemic restrictions. But six of those governors are Democrats, and the seventh, Charles Baker of Massachusetts, is a moderate Republican who has been willing to break with Trump.
When Trump suggested last month that social distancing restrictions could be lifted by Easter, Baker said simply, “Yeah, no.”
On the West Coast, the Democratic governors of California, Oregon and Washington have formed a similar comfortably politically aligned pact.
Reemergence will never be risk-free
Trump is talking out of his MAGA hat in suggesting that pandemic-related restrictions on personal movement and businesses will be lifted “sooner than people are thinking.” Or we sure hope so, in the interest of public safety. By every objective measure — new COVID-19 cases, deaths, testing for the virus and the necessary preparations that every business will have to make — any rollout to normalcy must come slowly, incrementally and certainly not by early May.
But eventually a decision to lift restrictions will be made, and it won’t be risk-free. There’s no way the American economy and way of life will remain in lockdown until the ultimate safeguard, a vaccine for COVID-19, is developed in a year or more.
We can transition from pandemic to chaos. Or we can go at this together — Washington with the states, as well as state to state — and get it right.
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