Faced with the prospect of a cratering economy and a looming election, President Donald Trump has said he wants to lift the extreme measures used to contain the coronavirus within a few weeks.
“This cure is worse than the problem,” he said during a Fox News town hall Tuesday. “In my opinion, more people are going to die if we allow this to continue. We have to go back to work. Our people want to go back to work.”
If the president were to ease his administration’s recommendations in mid-April — well before most public health officials say he should — governors across the country will be forced to decide whether to follow the guidance of the nation’s president or epidemiologists as they enact their own policies.
Republican governors, in particular, could face mounting pressure to abandon the sometimes-sweeping orders they’ve made to close businesses and schools if they end up at odds with the president’s guidance.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, responded to the president's comments at a news conference, saying she also would like to see a speedy return to life as usual.
“I think we all have that shared goal,” she said Wednesday. “I just want to make sure that I’m protecting Iowans and I’m making the decisions on the right data points.”
But even as the president was downplaying the possibility that much of the country would have to remain closed and in isolation for a long time, Reynolds took steps to expand and extend statewide closures.
“The more we do now to mitigate the spread of the virus, the sooner we will get through this so life and business can get back to normal,” she said Thursday.
Party ID shapes perception of pandemic
Already, views about the pandemic and the threat it poses are split firmly along party lines.
According to a Pew Research Poll in mid-March, 59% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said the coronavirus outbreak is a major threat to the nation’s health. But only 33% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said the same.
At that point, there were already thousands of confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. Since then, the number of the infected in the country has grown to more than 100,000.
Majorities of both Republicans and Democrats told pollsters they were confident in the health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and in their state and local officials to handle the pandemic. But Trump is far more polarizing.
Seventy-nine percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaners said he hadn’t taken the risks seriously enough. Just 22% of Republicans and Republican-leaners said the same.
“I think that’s a direct result of the president saying for weeks that this was not a problem,” said Republican political consultant Eric Woolson.
Woolson, who has worked for several campaigns in Iowa, acknowledged that Republican governors may feel some pressure from their Republican constituents to avoid some of the more drastic measures Democratic governors are enacting. But ultimately, he said, he thinks they’ll rely more heavily on the advice of public health officials than the political pressure.
“I’ve just always found that governors, in times like these — whether it’s tornadoes or blizzards or now this outbreak — they have always, whether Democrat or Republican, really put public safety first,” he said.
Although the president can set agendas and issue recommendations, it’s up to the leaders of each state to decide how best to handle the outbreak. Many of their responses have also split along ideological lines, with Democratic governors of blue states like California and New York acting far more aggressively.
Of the 24 governors who had issued statewide stay-at-home orders as of Friday afternoon, just seven are Republicans. Those orders vary but generally require residents to stay inside their homes except to seek essential services like groceries and medications. The orders are the most aggressive measures states have yet taken to combat the spread of the virus.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, became the seventh governor to enact such an order on March 22.
“We are at war,” DeWine said at the time. “And in a time of war, we have to make sacrifices.”
DeWine acted swiftly and more aggressively than many of his Republican counterparts who have resisted such austere measures.
A hyper-partisan battle is playing out in Florida, which had confirmed more than 2,800 cases of COVID-19 as of Friday afternoon. There, Democrats have urged Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to issue a stay at home order, though he has refused.
While Reynolds has publicly and repeatedly urged Iowans to stay home, she has stopped short of mandating it.
"It's important, also, that we keep Iowa open for business in a responsible way that protects the health of our people and our economy," she said at a recent news conference.
But even as she’s resisted calls to issue a formal stay-at-home order, Reynolds has recommended schools shutter and mandated businesses close while limiting public gatherings to 10 people.
On Thursday, she expanded those orders further. She also ordered statewide closures of stores that sell books, jewelry, luggage, beauty supplies, furniture, shoes and clothes and other non-essential goods. And she called for an end to elective surgeries and dental procedures.
“These additional steps, along with those we’ve already taken, are equivalent to the goals of many of the shelter-in-place orders,” she said Thursday.
Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, has taken similar steps — closing non-essential businesses and formally advising residents to stay in their homes but refusing to mandate it.
“I do not believe I can or should order U.S. citizens to be confined to their home for days on end,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense from a public health point of view, and it’s not realistic.”
And on Thursday, Idaho Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, ordered residents to remain at home for the next three weeks after the state discovered community spread of the virus in one of its most populous areas.
Even if Republican leaders do end up at odds with the president, many have already found ways to distance themselves from his views without ever veering into criticism.
“I love the president’s optimism. I really do appreciate that,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said Thursday when asked about Trump’s desire to reopen the country by Easter. “And I think the sentiment is out there across America that, if it were possible, we’d love to see it. I think it’s best that we turn to the folks at the CDC as well as Dr. Fauci and listen to those medical professionals and use their determination as our guidepost.”
In the midst of a crisis, angering a notoriously capricious president could put access to medical equipment, federal funding and more at risk. Leaders of both parties have been trying to carefully navigate their relationships with the president and his administration.
“I can’t afford to have a fight with the White House," Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, told the Associated Press.
Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR