Holdout governors face pressure to issue stay-at-home orders

Holdout governors are coming under pressure to take more aggressive action as the coronavirus spreads to more areas of the country. 

Sweeping orders that residents stay at home and that nonessential businesses close have garnered attention, but a number of states have yet to take such statewide actions.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, President Trump’s former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, issued warnings to Texas and Florida on Sunday. 

“Texas may have a very narrow window to take tougher action to avert a bad outcome with #COVID19,” he wrote on Twitter. “Building case counts in Dallas and other Texas cities, and a slow state response, are a dangerous harbinger that things could soon explode in that state.”

In Florida, which Gottlieb warned could become a “major epicenter,” Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Monday did issue a stay-at-home order for four counties in South Florida, but not for the entire state. 

Florida now has more than 5,000 cases of coronavirus, making it one of the harder-hit states.

Even as recently as Saturday, images circulated on social media of crowded beaches in St. Johns County, near Jacksonville, Fla., which unlike its neighboring counties had still not closed beaches. The county then announced that it would be closing beaches starting on Sunday, acknowledging that beachgoers “continue to ignore CDC guidelines.” 

Some leading experts said all states should be issuing stay-at-home orders and closing nonessential businesses. According to a database from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 22 states have still taken no action on stay-at-home orders, and 16 have not on closing nonessential businesses. 

“The sooner the better,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said of statewide stay-at-home orders. “Waiting until you get a lot of cases is the wrong strategy.”

Juliette Kayyem, a Harvard professor and former Obama administration Homeland Security official, said Monday that it would have been “optimal” for President Trump to have issued a nationwide stay-at-home order three weeks ago, as some European countries have done.

In the absence of that, she said every governor should take action. 

“The fat lady has sung, govs,” she wrote on Twitter. 

Trump, after flirting with the idea of trying to reopen the country by Easter, on Sunday announced he would extend social distancing federal guidelines through April, warning that as many as 2 million Americans could die without actions to slow the spread of the virus.

But while there are federal guidelines, the concrete decisions are up to governors, some of whom have yet to take stringent steps.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) issued an executive order restricting the ability of localities to tell people to stay home without the state’s approval and classifying a wide range of businesses, including barber shops and salons, as “essential” businesses that should remain open. 

That has led to tension with cities who want to take further action. Tucson issued an order on Friday to close all businesses not deemed essential by the governor’s order. 

“We cannot afford to wait any longer; COVID-19 is not waiting and neither can we,” Tucson Mayor Regina Romero (D) said in a statement. “If Governor Ducey is unwilling to take decisive action at the state level, then he needs to untie the hands of local jurisdictions and allow us to make decisions that are best for our individual communities.”

On Monday after this story was first published, Ducey announced that he would issue a stay-at-home order lasting through April 30. Romero tweeted that she still wants Ducey to narrow the list of essential businesses so that more businesses close.

While Illinois has issued a statewide stay-at-home order, across the border in Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson (R) has resisted that move. 

“When you start talking about shutting the state down for 30 days, 60 days or 90 days, the effects that has on the everyday people are dramatic,” Parson told reporters last week. “That means businesses will close, people will lose their jobs, [and] the economy will be in worse shape than ever.”

Some restaurants remain open for dine-in service in the state, the local NPR affiliate reported last week, because while the state advised people to avoid restaurants, it did not mandate that they close. 

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) drew widespread attention for saying on Fox News that senior citizens like himself are willing to “take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves” and preserving the economy. 

The state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has not made comments that go that far and has prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people. But Democrats in the state are pushing him to issue a stay-at-home order and close nonessential businesses as well. 

“Despite the hardship, the best science we have is clear that this is the best way forward for our state and our country,” dozens of state Democratic lawmakers wrote in a letter to Abbott last week. 

Abbott has said more rural parts of Texas could have different needs, and John Wittman, an Abbott spokesman, said 82 percent of Texans are already under shelter-in-place orders issued by localities.  

“What we are seeing is definitely a varying response across the states,” said Jennifer Tolbert, director of state health reform at the Kaiser Family Foundation. 

“The [Florida] governor has taken action, but there’s no ban on large gatherings, no closures of nonessential businesses, as other states that haven’t seen quite as many cases have done,” she said. 

Ten Democrats in Florida’s congressional delegation, led in part by Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, wrote a letter to DeSantis calling on him to issue a statewide stay-at-home order last week. 

“South Florida is rapidly heading towards becoming the next major epicenter for this epidemic,” Mucarsel-Powell said in a statement. “And right now, we are dangerously behind where we need to be to stop that trend.”

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