President Trump is holding back on declaring a nationwide stay-at-home order, even as some governors resist imposing restrictions that Trump’s top public health officials say are needed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The president has been reluctant to wade into matters he argues are better left to governors. But the pressure is growing for Trump to be decisive as Republican-led states like Texas, Iowa and Missouri are among the final holdouts to issue stay-at-home directives.
Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, said Trump may not have the legal authority to halt interstate travel or require governors to lock down a state. But the president has yet to fully use the power of his bully pulpit to encourage them to do so.
“What President Trump could do is send a much clearer signal that he wants all governors to do a lockdown on their states, to guide them about what that lockdown would require and what the standard should be,” Gostin said.
The U.S. had more than 206,000 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Wednesday afternoon, and roughly 4,500 have died in the U.S. from the virus.
Administration officials have repeatedly stressed the best-case scenario — resulting in 100,000 to 240,000 deaths — will only be attained if Americans rigorously follow federal social distancing guidelines that urge people to stay at home when possible and keep a distance of 6 feet from others when outside.
But since roughly one-third of states have yet to issue statewide stay-at-home orders, there are questions about why the White House allows the patchwork approach to persist in lieu of a firmer national decree.
A former administration official familiar with the situation said the White House discussed the possibility of a national advisory in some form, but at the time the virus had yet to impact swaths of the country enough to warrant serious consideration.
Italy and India have both imposed nationwide lockdowns to try to contain the virus. Trump over the weekend floated a quarantine of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, but backed off amid questions over its legality and enforceability in favor of issuing a travel advisory.
Top U.S. health officials have been careful not to undercut the president and have acknowledged the difficulty some governors face in getting residents to heed something like a statewide lockdown. Instead, they have put the emphasis on federal social distancing guidelines that are in place at least through the end of April, suggesting those are the next best thing to a stay-at-home directive.
“My advice to America would be that these guidelines are a national stay at home order,” Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Wednesday on NBC’s “Today” show. “They’re guidelines that say the more we social distance, the more we stay at home, the less spread of disease there will be.”
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, dodged a question about whether the federal government should ask every state to implement a stay-at-home order, telling NBC everybody should “strictly follow” federal guidelines.
And Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus response, told reporters Tuesday that Trump and Vice President Pence “trust the American people to understand that they can be outside, take walks, be 6 feet away from anyone else and be in their homes, and we trust them to do that without having to lock down.”
Governors across the country have largely taken the decision out of Trump’s hands. More than 30 states have issued stay-at-home orders for residents. But the holdouts have mostly been red states, including some with large populations that could suffer without stronger mitigation measures.
The president has shown an unwillingness to lean on GOP Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida or Greg Abbott of Texas to shut down their states, even though DeSantis on Tuesday explicitly said he would do so if the White House urged him to.
“Different kind of a state,” Trump said Tuesday when asked about DeSantis’s comments. “Also, great governor. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Has a very strong view on it. And we have spoken to Ron.”
DeSantis gave in a day later, signing an order Wednesday urging residents to “limit movements and personal interactions outside the home.”
The former administration official noted that Trump may be less inclined to push for a more uniform stay-at-home policy because the states without one at the moment are ones where he has strong political support. The president may be wary of triggering backlash among his base, the official suggested.
But the fact that the lack of action is coming from certain red states underscores why Trump should be more involved, Gostin argued.
“The truth is we’re only seeing fairly good social distancing in coastal states but not in southern states like Florida and in the Midwest,” he said. “And it’s in those states that he has the most influence to encourage particular red-state governors to do a lockdown. And he could give them political cover to do it.”
“He doesn’t have legal power,” Gostin added. “But he has enormous influence, particularly in the South and the Midwest, to try to have a much more nationally uniform strategy rather than an utterly inconsistent patchwork across the country.”
The consequences of further inaction from states like Texas in particular could be calamitous, experts warn. While states like Washington have seen some success in tamping down the number of coronavirus cases through aggressive social distancing measures, a patchwork system could leave other parts of the country vulnerable and overwhelm the health care system in the coming weeks and months.
“I think the real wild card here and the decision point on whether or not we’re going to have the bad outcome that Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx talked about is what populous states like Texas and Florida do that really haven’t taken aggressive steps even now,” former Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb said Wednesday morning on CNBC.
“They’re large states, they have large urban areas that have very dense populations. And if they don’t get more aggressive, then we could be on the cusp of some of those bad outcomes,” he said.
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