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Governors Clamp Down as Trump Considers Easing Virus Plans

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 3/23/2020 Shruti Date Singh and Jordan Fabian

(Bloomberg) -- Governors and mayors across the U.S. issued orders to shut down normal human contact and commercial life even as the Trump administration debates dialing back guidances that officials fear is smothering the economy.

On Monday, Indiana, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Massachusetts ordered residents to stay at home while Virginia and Maryland placed restrictions on non-essential movement. South Carolina banned gatherings of more than two people. The actions by the governors -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- show that even if President Donald Trump relaxes the recommendations, states won’t necessarily follow.

“It’s the biggest event of any living person in the United States today,” West Virginia Governor Jim Justice said about the pandemic.

Trump’s administration has weighed loosening “social distancing” guidelines and encouraging more Americans to get back to work. Convention cancellations, school closures, drops in bus and rail ridership and bans on dining-in at restaurants are raising the chances the U.S. is headed into or is already in recession. Unemployment claims are surging.

Back to Work?

Trump had made the booming economy his main argument for re-election, and last week he began discussing how to move people back to the workplace, according to two people familiar with the matter. That was three days after he announced a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plan recommending most Americans stay home for 15 days to help stem the outbreak. That period concludes on March 31, and internal discussions have centered on what to do once it ends.

“We will be back in business as a country pretty soon, and you’ll be hearing about that also pretty soon,” Trump said. “I’m not looking at months.”

The president has little direct power to order sectors of the U.S. economy to start and stop, and American federalism means governors hold sway in their states. Many are issuing their own directives that go further, closing schools for weeks or months, shuttering nonessential businesses and setting stringent shelter-in-place orders.

The governors of New York, Ohio, Illinois, California, Connecticut, Nevada and Pennsylvania within the last week told their residents -- one-third of the U.S. population of 328 million -- that nonessential businesses must close and they shouldn’t venture out other than for groceries, medicine or emergencies. This week, more are following that lead.

Justice of West Virginia, a Republican, acted after a televised speech Saturday in which he spoke of the gravity of the crisis but gave little direction. The Gazette-Mail of Charleston had a banner headline Sunday: “Governor urges action, takes none.”

On Monday, he took it, announcing a stay-at-home order effective Tuesday at 8 p.m. Justice said at a news conference that nonessential businesses must close.

Jim Hurley, the owner of O’Hurley’s General Store in Shepherdstown, said that he would try to continue the Thursday-night concerts that have been going on for 40 years, but without guests -- only musicians.

“The music is going to go on, but the crowds are not,” he said.

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, a Republican, issued an executive order that bars gatherings of more than two people unless in their homes. It applies to “parties on the beach,” concerts, and other public gatherings.

“It’s difficult to draw the line, but we know it when we see it,” McMaster said at a news conference on Monday. He said law enforcement officers would “vigorously” enforce the restrictions on “these sorts of gatherings that are invitations for infection.”

Economic Stress

Virginia’s Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said closing some nonessential businesses will add to economic stress, “but the sooner that we get this health crisis under control, the sooner our economy will recover.”

Eric Holcomb of Indiana, a Republican, on Monday ordered Hoosiers to remain home and said he would keep working with Washington “to get the financial help to the people most in need – and get it there now.”

Large Texas cities and counties are going their own way in the absence of statewide guidance from Governor Greg Abbott. Abbott refrained from a statewide shelter-in-place order during a Sunday afternoon news conference, pointing to the absence of positive Covid-19 cases in more than 200 of the state’s 254 counties. Abbott also said he wanted to see the full results of an executive order issued Thursday that closed all restaurant dining rooms and bars.

But Dallas County on Sunday night ordered residents to stay put for all but essential business activity and individual errands under a shelter-at-home order. On Monday, public officials in Waco and McLennan County followed suit, each issuing orders directing their residents to stay home.

Abbott isn’t the only governor leery of cracking down.

Florida Republican Ron DeSantis, a fervent Trump supporter, said Monday that he still isn’t prepared to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, arguing that 20 counties -- as of Monday morning -- still didn’t have confirmed cases. He implied that more draconian measures in New York had backfired.

“A lot of people fled the city,” DeSantis said. “They’re going to stay with their parents or they’re flying -- we’re getting huge amounts of people flying in. We’re looking at how to address those flights. I talked to the president last night about that.”

Federal medical experts, who have thus far played a central role in the administration’s response, have said that restrictions on movement and commerce are the only way to curb the pandemic within the U.S. But in past day Trump and his aides have begun floating the idea of rolling them back.

“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!” Trump tweeted late Sunday.

“The president is right,” top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Monday on Fox News, adding he spoke about the matter with Trump within the last 24 hours. “We’re going to have to make some difficult trade-offs.”

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, a Republican, said in a tweet that Vice President Mike Pence told her in a Monday phone call the administration isn’t considering a national shelter-in-place order.

“He assured me that @potus was focused on slowing the spread & doing everything to get our economy moving again!” Ivey said.

In neighboring Tennessee, Governor Bill Lee, another Republican, also downplayed the need for a statewide clampdown and stressed the harsh economic impact.

Still, he didn’t rule it out. “Decisions change every day,” Lee said in a news briefing.

(Updates with Trump in sixth paragraph)

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