At times, the Trump administration has seemed less like a partner than a competitor, commandeering supplies that governors had thought were coming their way. Shipments of gloves, masks, and ventilators bound for states have been rerouted to the federal government. Larry Hogan, Maryland’s Republican governor, said this week that thousands of coronavirus tests he obtained from South Korea are now under guard at “an undisclosed location,” in part because he doesn’t want them seized by the Trump administration.
The federal government “needs to be in or out,” Colorado Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, told us. “If they’re out, that’s great; they’re not buying stuff out from under the states. If they’re in, they need to have a transparent process on how they’re making decisions on what states like Colorado will be getting.” (One senior White House official told us the administration has on occasion jumped to the front of the line when it comes to buying supplies, but only to ensure that states with more infections get material they need.)
Even Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican who told us he’s generally satisfied with the White House’s coordination on the crisis, has struggled to secure enough protective equipment for medical workers. “It’s the Wild West out there, trying to get PPE,” he said. At one point, the state received a shipment—from China by way of Los Angeles—of what DeWine thought would be 5 million N95 masks, only to have inspectors find that beneath a top layer of genuine masks the rest was, in DeWine’s words, “junk.” “There’s people who are just scam artists everywhere,” he told us.
In Trump’s absence, many governors have been eager to collaborate with one another instead. Earlier this week, for example, Colorado and Nevada joined California, Oregon, and Washington in a pact that aims to responsibly ease stay-at-home orders and reopen their states. Governors on the East Coast have established a similar alliance. “You have broader coalitions,” Raymond Scheppach, a former longtime executive director of the National Governors Association, told us. The governors “are getting into groupings so they won’t get pushed around by [Trump].”
And they’re gaining new capabilities that could render them less reliant on a president who demands they show personal gratitude. “Our state has had to learn to navigate international supply chains,” Polis said. “We’ve pulled in people from the private sector, we’ve established strong relationships in China and South Korea, and we’ve been doing what we can to have supplies we need for Colorado.”
For Trump, elevating the governors may have already backfired. He can try to blame them for things going sour. But he’s also invited comparisons that have left his public profile diminished. A new poll shows that 64 percent of Americans think their governor is doing a better job handling the pandemic than Trump. Another poll showed approval for DeWine’s coronavirus-crisis management at 85 percent, versus 50 percent for Trump.
“People look at the states now as better able to get things done than the federal government,” DeWine said.
To Chesney, governors’ reassertion of their authority is simply “federalism in action.”
“This is a living illustration of what the Founders intended: preserving a substantial part of the true independence of the states,” he said.
Still, for many people living through the crisis, the political landscape seems pretty confused. Ordinary citizens don’t always know whose direction they should heed to keep themselves safe and their businesses afloat.
Uri Wurtzel co-owns an Atlanta bowling alley called Comet Pub and Lanes. He pronounced himself “taken aback” to see bowling alleys among the first businesses allowed to reopen in Georgia. He had shut his own place down in mid-March, “before there was any word from anybody in authority [in Georgia] about needing to close,” and he has no intention of reopening now. The risk of infection is too high, because bowlers exchange shoes and touch the same bowling balls.
Wurtzel told us he’ll think about reopening once he hears medical experts confirm that his state is out of the woods. He’s decided not to take his cues from politicians at all—not from mayors, or governors, or the president.
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