AS THE coronavirus
pandemic continues to
spread, with credible estimates that the peak in Virginia may be several weeks away, the public looks to government for a firm response to the crisis. Few government duties are as profoundly serious as protecting the public health.
For much of the public, it is not clear who exactly leads in such situations. Many reasonably consider the federal government to be the primary force for mitigating a national crisis.
Yet the much-too-late action by the Trump administration, coupled with the president’s numerous statements that the states should shoulder many complicated tasks on their own, has left little confidence that the national government is in control.
Add to that the completely inconsistent responses to the crisis by various state and local leaders, it is no wonder the public lacks confidence that government can solve this crisis.
At the core of the problem is a system of federalism that assigns responsibility through a multi-layered complexity of government units acting on their own with little coordination. A look at some of the responses throughout the country shows an incredible range of actions, revealing a complete lack of consensus even on the seriousness of the problem.
Some governors shut down all non-essential businesses and issued directives to shelter in place, while during a critical phase of the outbreak, the governor of Oklahoma tweeted pictures of himself and his family at a restaurant as though all was normal.
When the governor of Florida rejected calls to shut down the state’s public beaches at the height of spring break revelry, local governments in the state acted on their own to close the beaches. But when local government units in Mississippi issued bans on public gatherings, the state’s governor overrode their actions by an executive order that declared most businesses “essential.”
The nation’s response to a major crisis is a hodge-podge of often conflicting actions and no effective federal coordination. The federal government is even forcing states into a situation of outbidding each other to pay for needed medical equipment at a time when distribution must be based on need, not resources and the effective willingness to be price-gouged.
The different approaches of local leaders to the crisis also highlight the challenges ahead, but leave some hope as well.
While Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan was winning national plaudits for taking some of the most aggressive approaches to mitigate the spread of the virus, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam took a great deal of criticism for being hesitant to shut down non-essential businesses and all public gatherings.
Although the nation’s federalism structure complicates confronting a national crisis, there are hopeful signs. Normally, a strong national-led response to a crisis is necessary, but when that is lacking, all hope is not lost. Many governors and local leaders have stepped up to act in forceful and effective ways in light of a failed national approach.
There are also many examples of effective regional coordination of action throughout the country by state and local leaders. At a time when the U.S. president questioned the wisdom of social-distancing practices, the governors of Maryland and Virginia, along with the mayor of Washington, D.C., issued a joint statement of their commitment to work together to ensure social distancing in their jurisdictions.
Perhaps most telling of all, it was the three jurisdictional leaders, and not the federal government, who jointly put in place measures to protect upwards of 360,000 federal employees, many of whom are at work in areas critical to resolving the national crisis.
Additionally, on Monday the three leaders issued stay-at-home orders.
There will be a time, long after the coronavirus crisis resolves, to debate the efficacy of our current federalism structure. For now, the situation is summed up by Travis Gayles, the chief health officer of Montgomery County, Md.: “We’re not waiting for the feds to step up. We’ve known that they’re just not, so we’re not waiting for that to happen.”
Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and co-author of “Federalism: A Very Short Introduction.”