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COVID-19 Threatens to Further Split the U.S. Into Two Americas


A growing divide between Republican and Democratic supporters across the country could lead to very different responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Individuals gathered this week in several state capitals across the country to protest the various shelter in place orders that have shuttered businesses across the country and shattered Americans’ sense of normalcy. In Annapolis, Maryland, journalists set their sights on the protest, but the governor’s press team said they actually had received more media inquiries about the event than there were protestors.

There is little doubt that most Americans don’t want to be at home anymore (97 percent are under stay-at-home orders). And with the unemployment rate threatening to reach or exceed Great Depression levels, it’s safe to say that policymakers from all parts of the political spectrum want to see people back at work.

But do the agitators protesting the stay at home orders in the last week represent the views of the majority of their fellow citizens? What are local, state, and federal lawmakers doing to drive the conversation about reopening forward? And, perhaps most importantly, what are things going to look like when governors and local officials do let Americans out of their homes?

The answer to that first question is this: most Americans are pretty wary about returning to “business as usual.” But some individuals are more wary than others—and that breakdown could mean “red” Republican states open faster than “blue” Democratic ones. In other words: forget Election 2020; the biggest political battle in the United States is shaping up to be about how long Americans need to stay at home.

According to a survey by Ipsos, 83 percent of self-identified Democrats say it is too early to go back to pre-COVID-19 life. The majority of self-identified Republicans say the same, but that number, at 62 percent, is far lower. Ipsos actually says Republicans, who had been displaying increased levels of concern about the pandemic over the last few weeks, “have reversed course.” This week, only half of GOP voters told Ipsos they are extremely or very concerned about COVID-19, down from 56 percent last week. The current figure is more than 30 percentage points lower than the 80 percent of Democratic voters who say they are very or extremely concerned about the pandemic.

The Pew Research Center found a similar divide. Only 51 percent of Republican voters told Pew they are worried that government officials will ease restrictions on social and business activity too quickly. That compares to 81 percent for Democrats. Nearly nine in 10 Democrats say the worst of the pandemic is yet to come, but only 56 percent of Republicans agree with that statement.

No matter what polling says, most local, state, and federal lawmakers have decided it is time to at least start the conversation about bringing Americans out of their homes. President Donald Trump began this deliberation two weeks ago by asserting that he had the ultimate authority (over states) to open up the economy.

That rhetorical stance lasted less than a week, however, since most constitutional scholars disagreed. Then, last Thursday, the White House issued guidance for states and localities to consider when contemplating reopening. As if to underscore the White House’s newly-found deference to state and local governments on the question of reopening, members of the president’s pandemic task force have reiterated that they will refrain from taking a heavy hand with states—and will not question states that do not follow the president’s guidelines when reopening their economies.

Still, most governors at this point are taking the guidance at least somewhat into consideration.

The White House plan outlines several criteria it wants states to meet before they being “phase one” of reopening. The first criterion concerns individuals displaying symptoms of the virus or the flu. The White House wants the volume of individuals exhibiting indicators like fevers, soreness, or fatigue to have been on the decline for at least 14 days. The second criteria concerns the number of cases. The White House wants one of two things to happen: there must be a downward slope in the number of documented cases within a 14-day period or there must be a decline in the number of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period.

Finally, hospitals must be able to treat all patients and there must be a robust testing program in place for at-risk healthcare workers (note: not for all citizens).

After these metrics have been achieved, the White House says it is okay for phase one to begin.

So what is phase one? During this part of reopening, the White House recommends that highly-at risk individuals would continue to shelter in place while other Americans would emerge from their homes but continue with social distancing measures in groups of less than 10 people. Non-essential travel would be off-limits, but many non-teleworking Americans would return to work. Gyms could open if they enforce social distancing. Bars? Not so much. Schools also would remain closed.

States could move forward with phase two if they did not see any spike in cases during phase one and if the number of cases and individuals with symptoms continued to decline for another 14 days.

In phase two, highly-at risk individuals would continue to shelter in place while other citizens would be kept from congregating in groups of 50 or more. Non-essential travel could resume and more businesses could open, but telework would be encouraged. Schools and daycares also could reopen—and bars, too, as long as strict social distancing practices are in place.

States could move on to the last phase if they again did not see any spike in cases and if the number of cases and individuals with symptoms continued to decline for two more weeks. During phase three, vulnerable individuals could stop sheltering in place, and large venues could begin operating again. There would be no restrictions on employers.

But—again—all of that is mere guidance. The authority to lift shelter-in-place and other orders is up to local and state leaders, primarily the governors.

And these leaders are … well … all over the map, both literally and figuratively.

Some governors are forming regional coalitions to determine a path forward. That includes the hotspot of New York, which is working with its neighbors Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts to coordinate the reopening of their regional economy. Similar coalitions have formed in the Midwest and in the Pacific Northwest.

Other governors seem to be going it alone. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis plans to outline his reopening plan this week, but his neighbor Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia has announced that gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios, barbers, hair and nail salons, estheticians, and massage therapists can reopen on April 24. Theaters and restaurants can reopen on April 27. (Contrast that with Nebraska, where Gov. Pete Ricketts has closed hair salons and tattoo parlors, and banned group sports through May 31.) South Carolina also opened some businesses this week, but they are under strict orders to operate only at 20 percent capacity.

Traditionally, federalism—where states have primacy over the national government—has been a tenet of governing throughout U.S. history. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, has noted, “The virus will be with us … We have to find a sustainable way that will be adapted in real-time to how we live with it.” But it appears that “way” will likely look like a patchwork of policies rather than a cohesive, national plan.

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