As pandemic widens its tentacles, tug of war begins between Trump and Governors

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 8, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

NEW YORK – Globally, billions of people are uneasily hunkering down at home. Avoiding contact, making small talk with friends and strangers. Wary of touching contaminated surfaces; suspicious of grocery bags, postal mail. Hoping desperately to not be ensnared unwittingly in the ranks of those afflicted, those who succumb daily to the unrelenting coronavirus pandemic.

Even as the death count climbs by the thousands daily, defy predictions, make a mockery of ‘flattening the curve’ graphs and charts, a ferocious tug of war began this week between President Trump and some state governors, over who has the ultimate right to determine when the economy should be opened up, life ordered back to normal – if such a scenario can be conceived at all.

The fight, limited to vocal barbs for now – and the best political confrontation the public can get after the premature end of presidential debates – is sure to loop in all the 50 states, like the tentacles of the coronavirus has already done so. It has all the makings of an unprecedented, colossal battle of federal vs. state authority and rights.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo started the ball rolling on the issue, when on Monday, he announced that his state, along with New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island and Massachusetts each plan to name a public health and economic official to a regional working group. The chief of staff of the governor of each state also will be a part of the group, which will begin work immediately to design a reopening plan, reported CNN.

Later, the same day, the West Coast states of California, Washington and Oregon also announced they are joining forces in a plan to begin incremental release of stay-at-home orders. Governors of the three states will collaborate on their approach to getting back to business in “in a safe, strategic, responsible way,” announced California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Politico reported New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy called the coordination an “overwhelmingly prudent approach.”

Murphy said his state is behind New York and still not at a plateau of hospitalizations, although it has seen a flattening of cases. The state has reported more than 64,000 positive cases and more than 2,400 deaths.

“We do know this, an economic recovery only occurs on the back of a complete health care recovery,” Murphy said, adding that “jumping in too early” could result in “unintended consequences which could be grave.”

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo put the matter succinctly: “The reality is that this virus doesn’t care about state borders and our response shouldn’t either.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaking about COVID-19 spread in New York state (Photo videograb Twitter NYGovCuomo)

Cuomo said he did not think the plan would be completely uniform, noting that even within New York there are different circumstances in rural areas compared to the dense environment of New York City and its nearby suburbs, reported Politico.

The move by Cuomo and the other governors came on a day when New York’s death toll climbed by 778, on Monday, ending a brief run of declines the previous few days. On the positive side, the number of people hospitalized by Covid-19 has started to plateau out at around 18,000 over the past few days. More ventilators are coming in, hospital beds are increasing.

Trump, who has been vacillating most days between calling for stricter social distancing and lockdown measures, and opening up businesses as soon as possible to kickstart the economy, saw the move by Cuomo and the other governors as a direct affront to his authority and leadership.

In an extraordinary briefing at the White House on Monday evening, Trump made it clear that he alone had the ultimate power to make the decision of when to ease the stay-at-home orders and other restrictions that governors across the country enacted to slow the spread of the virus, reported the New York Times.

“The president of the United States calls the shots,” Trump said. “They can’t do anything without the approval of the president of the United States.”

The battle intensified on Tuesday, as governors responded scornfully to Trump’s insistence — widely challenged by legal scholars — that he has the authority to direct the reopening of the American economy by himself, reported the Times.

“We don’t have a king; we have a president,” Cuomo said on NBC’s “Today.” In a separate appearance on MSNBC, he warned that if Trump tried to force an economic reopening on the states, it could lead to “a constitutional crisis like you haven’t seen in decades, where states tell the federal government, ‘We’re not going to follow your order.’”

Gov. Ned Lamont, Democrat of Connecticut, told CNN that “verbal hand grenades” from Trump should not “distract from a lot of other good work that’s going on.”

The matter came to a head after Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican who is the chairman of the National Governors Association, pushed back on Trump’s opinion, according to the Times.

“It’s not my understanding of the Constitution,” Hogan said in an interview on CNN. “Governors made decisions to take various actions in their states, based on what they thought was right for their state, based on the facts on the ground, talking with doctors and scientists. And I think individual governors who made those decisions will have the ultimate decision about what to do with their states.”

Criticism for Trump came from other allies, too.

Rep. Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming and a daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, posted the text of the Tenth Amendment on Twitter: “The federal government does not have absolute power. The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

While the sabre rattling between Trump and governors will surely trend for now, putting into shade conspiracy theories on China that’s been doing the rounds on social media, at the heart of the issue is one of palpable fear.

Most Americans right now are helpless in the situation, stricken by uncertainty as to the future course of their life and career. They are just hoping for some amicable solution by their elected leaders to bring life back to even keel.

Even as talk swirls of opening the economy, grim news of deaths of workers at grocery stores and meat plants, forcing closure, dominate the headlines too.

Many economists agree that it will be a long time before the nearly 17 million Americans who have lost their jobs or seen dramatic cutbacks in hours are all back at work, reported The Washington Post.

The latest National Association of Business Economics survey of leading economists released Monday predicts the official unemployment rate will hit 12 percent this spring and fall only to 9.5% by the end of the year. That means many months without work for millions of Americans.

Nearly all economists agree that widespread testing or some sort of vaccine will be necessary to truly get the economy back to normal levels, so people can feel safe to go out to restaurants, concerts and baseball games, as consumers rev up the nation’s economic engine, as they did before, the Post analyzed.

“Testing needs to pick up. That will allow us to keep the spread of the virus down by finding carriers,” wrote Neil Dutta, head of U.S. economics at Renaissance Macro Research, in a note to clients. “We can’t open the economy if every person that gets the virus is still spreading it to five people.”

Is Trump listening?

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)



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