States Announce Regional Efforts to Restart the Economy

A man wearing a mask crosses the street in a quiet Times Square, Thursday, April 9, 2020, during the coronavirus epidemic.

A man wearing a mask crosses the street in a quiet Times Square, Thursday, April 9, 2020, during the coronavirus epidemic. AP Photo/Mark Lennihan


Connecting state and local government leaders

The moves came as President Trump declared he and the federal government have primacy over deciding when “to open up the states” amid the coronavirus crisis.

Two blocs of states, one in the east and the other on the west coast, separately unveiled plans on Monday to coordinate on combating the coronavirus outbreak and eventually reopening their regional economies when the initial threat from the deadly disease that the virus causes subsidies.

In the east, the governors of six states—New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Rhode Island—said that they were creating a multi-state council that would focus on restoring the economy and developing a regional framework to gradually lift stay-at-home orders and other restrictions that have been put in place to control the spread of the virus. Later in the day, the state leaders confirmed that Massachusetts would join the group as well.

“The state boundaries mean very little to this virus,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

He explained that each state would be represented within the council initiative by a public health official, an economic development official, and the governor's chief of staff. These officials will form a working group, the governor said, which will focus on designing a reopening plan that accounts for both public health and economic concerns.

Cuomo said he didn't believe the council's work would lead to a fully common strategy across the region, given that there will be different circumstances surrounding the virus within each state.

"I would love to do everything in unison. That's the optimum. If unison isn't possible," he said, "let's at least know what each other is doing so we're not counterproductive with each other."

The three west coast states of Washington, Oregon and California moved in a similar direction, with their governors announcing an agreement that they would work together on a shared approach for restarting their economies and controlling the disease going forward.

In a joint statement, the western governors emphasized that this effort would be data-driven and would involve identifying “clear indicators for communities to restart public life and business.”

“We need to see a decline in the rate of spread of the virus before large-scale reopening, and we will be working in coordination to identify the best metrics to guide this,” they added.

The announcements on regional cooperation came as President Trump tweeted on Monday that it would be up to him and the federal government to decide when the appropriate time would be “to open up the states.” But he also said he would work with governors on this.

Cuomo responded to Trump's comments by pointing out that the federal government had largely left it to the states to decide how and when to adopt restrictions aimed at controlling the virus.

The governor didn't voice outright opposition to an approach where the federal government has greater input over when these sorts of policies are reversed. "If they want to change the model, they can change the model," he said. 

"But then change the model and explain it," he added. "What does that mean, the federal government is in charge of opening?"

Later in the day, at a White House press briefing, Vice President Mike Pence said that the Trump administration would work in the days ahead with health experts and business leaders to produce new guidelines—certified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—for how states could move beyond the immediate phase of the public health crisis.

"We're going to give them guidance," Pence said. The guidelines, he said, would reflect the unique circumstances different places are facing. The vice president also said that it could make sense in some cases for states to work together on a regional basis.

Trump, meanwhile, reiterated his claim that he has the clout to decide when states should bring their economies back online. "The federal government has absolute power," he said. "As to whether or not I'll use that power, we'll see."

"I would rather work with the states, because I like going down to a local government," Trump added.

The president said that he chose to defer to the states on how to go about shutting businesses and schools as part of the coronavirus response. "I let that happen," he said. "But if I wanted to, I could have closed it up."  He also characterized the relationship his administration now has with the governors and the states as "very good."

Pence noted that the White House's coronavirus task force held a call with 48 governors on Monday and said it is the first time in U.S. history all 50 states have had emergency declarations in place at once.

Covid-19, the respiratory illness that the virus causes has now claimed upwards of 23,000 lives nationwide since late February. And there are over 570,000 confirmed cases in the U.S.

To help slow the spread of the virus, government officials have ordered people to stay at home, except for essential trips, like going to the grocery store, and they’ve called on a wide range of businesses to close. This has resulted in a massive disruption to the economy.

As the weeks wear on with these measures in place, an increasingly pressing question has become how the nation will begin dialing back the restrictions on commerce and personal travel, and begin shifting the country back towards some semblance of normalcy.

On Monday, neither of the groups of governors offered a specific timeline for when these sorts of restrictions might finally be lifted, or when different types of businesses would be permitted to reopen.

Cuomo did say that the eastern states council would begin talking on Tuesday and he expects that the group will come up with a game plan of some sort within weeks.

He also noted that it appears cases in New York had reached a plateau and were not rising at the same high rate that they had been. The New York City region, in particular, had become one of the nation's epicenters for the virus outbreak in recent weeks.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said the number of new cases in his state still hadn't leveled off. "We're not out of the woods yet," he said. "An economic recovery only occurs on the back of a complete health care recovery and that order is essential."

This story was updated with additional comment and to note that Massachusetts later joined the council established by the eastern states.

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Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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