States play increased role in coronavirus crisis; Gov. Mills takes charge

In February, President Trump met with the National Governors Association.  During a long and rambling session, including much praise for his policies, the president spent less than 20 seconds talking about the coronavirus.  He found no need for any state action.

His full remarks: “Now, the virus that we’re having to do – you know, a lot of people think that it goes away in April with the heat – as the heat comes in.  Typically, that will go away in April.  We’re in great shape though.  We have 12 cases – 11 cases and many of them are in good shape now.”

A month earlier, clear warnings had been issued by qualified scientists and in the media about the outbreak in Wuhan, China, of a new viral illness.  The world was familiar with earlier virus outbreaks that had been taken seriously.

The World Health Organization had announced that the coronavirus was a “public-health emergency of international concern.”  Trump had already shut down entry for people from China, though American citizens were admitted.

As part of a clear change in his approach to the crisis, on Monday Trump had a conference call with the governors.  He was nonpartisan in tone and recognized they would need to take strong action of their own,

While it was not pleasant to dwell on the possible effect of a new viral strain, Trump had missed an unusual opportunity to mobilize national action.  In a country as vast as the U.S. and with a communicable virus, getting the states involved in reacting along with the federal government would have made sense.

It still does.  On Monday, Trump had a conference call with the governors.  It was non-partisan in tone.  Some governors were reportedly surprised that they were expected to act rather than waiting for the federal government to direct and support them.

The NGA had failed to use the opportunity to consider the threat from the virus and even to organize a regular interstate contact network.  The states are frequently pushed out of the picture by the federal government, but this time was different.  States may have grown accustomed to a subordinate role.

To contradict the president’s original, optimistic report would have risked making the issue a part of the political campaign.  The NGA tries to remain as non-partisan as possible.  Still, the organization might have provided governors a briefing by a scientist.

At least, then, states might have reacted earlier.  Upon returning home, governors could have checked on state preparedness for a virus and if there was anything else they should be doing.  Instead, many accepted the president’s reassurance that the virus was no big deal.

Did local journalists question state government officials about planning for the virus?  They, too, needed to get more actively involved.  Regular, complete and accurate reporting on a spreading virus is essential.  Local news could focus best on matters close to affected people.

Governors are close to the concerns of people in their states.  They can choose on their own to cooperate across state lines.  State powers to deal with threats to public health and safety are legally greater than the powers of the federal government.

Gov. Mills declared a state of emergency, giving her almost dictatorial powers.  Her major announcement received routine news coverage on local stations.  Interrupting regular broadcasts for her full statement would have been justified.

The priorities of the federal government may differ from various state interests.  Governors need to act to meet their own needs and not lean too much on the federal government.  Trump now says they may be better at purchasing supplies than the federal government.  They may be able to cooperate with one another, reducing costs and sharing experiences.

The Maine statute covering a declaration of emergency contains a major section on energy emergencies.  The original version of that section was swiftly adopted by the Legislature when President Reagan abruptly ended almost the entire federal role.

The law grew out of actions previously considered by the NGA.  At the time, Maine chaired the NGA energy committee (disclosure: I represented the State.) and focused its attention on energy emergency planning.  The NGA could learn from that experience to promote state health emergency planning.

The American political system is deeply divided.  No matter what happens in November, bitter conflict is likely to survive, undercutting federal action.  Most people recognize that the post-coronavirus world will be different.  Part of the change may be an increased state role.

The coronavirus reaction, with a large part of the responsibility finally coming back to the states, is a message that individual states, with the NGA as their forum, need to adjust.  They should expect to meet public needs and priorities increasingly on their own.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.