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California, Western State Allies Forging Their Own Paths in Coronavirus Crisis

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Main News Photo

(San Francisco Chronicle)

When Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out ground rules that would allow counties with few coronavirus cases to move faster than the state to reopen their economies, he credited Colorado and Oregon with the idea.

“They quite literally — that’s a proof point of the work they were doing in this space — helped guide and advance our work that we are putting out,” Newsom said during a May 4 news conference.

The plan was the product of conversations between five Western states’ governors who formed one of several interstate pacts that are coordinating regional responses to the coronavirus pandemic. But since it was rolled out with fanfare a month ago, the collaboration between California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and Colorado has been loose, advisory and largely symbolic. Each state is still crafting its own strategy to lift shutdown measures and following a different timeline to resume public life.

California and Washington gave permission for curbside pickup for retailers and some outdoor activities to resume last week, while Nevada jumped ahead to allow stores and restaurants to operate at half capacity.

In Oregon, the first counties reopened only Friday. But restaurants, bars, gyms, and salons in those counties can operate with social distancing protocols, and gatherings of up to 25 people are allowed. That’s far more leeway than Newsom has given to the mostly rural counties in California that were granted permission last week to reopen faster than the state.

And Colorado had already announced the first phase of its reopening when it joined the pact at the end of April, when other member states were still nearly entirely shut down. Retailers, office spaces, barbershops, tattoo parlors, pet groomers, and massage therapists have been opening for weeks in Colorado, although dining at restaurants and working out at gyms remain largely forbidden.

David McCuan, a professor of political science at Sonoma State University, said the pact was primarily an arrangement of political convenience. It gave the Western states a stamp of authority to direct their coronavirus response, while also providing their Democratic governors a boost in national profile by contrasting their approach with that of the Trump administration.

As the next phase of the crisis turns inward — governors are facing down decimated budgets and regions of their states are in rebellion against stay-at-home orders — the coordination could help them maintain the balance of power and provide cover for difficult or unpopular decisions.

“It’s a political necessity to keep the focus on themselves and to keep it there for as long as possible,” McCuan said. “What you’re going to see is some protection in numbers or protection with like-mindedness.”

The Western States Pact was announced in mid-April, with Newsom, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee promising to “work together on a shared approach for reopening our economies.” Nevada Gov. Brian Sisolak and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis joined two weeks later.

At the time, states were facing growing pressure from President Trump to end the stay-at-home orders that many had enacted to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Trump told reporters that it would be up to him when to restart the country because his authority as president was “total.”

As with similar agreements in the Northeast and the Midwest, the unity among the West Coast states initially created a counterbalance to Trump’s demands. Newsom said California, Oregon, and Washington would be “using science to guide our decision-making, not political pressure.”

Mike Faulk, a spokesman for Inslee, said the greatest benefit of the pact was “acknowledging we are in this together as a region” and signaling to the federal government the states’ needs on testing, personal protective equipment and economic recovery.

“The leaders of these states have acknowledged some of the help provided by the federal government, but it has not been enough and in some cases the president and the Senate’s messaging have had very troubling implications for the future,” Faulk said in an email. He pointed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s recent comments that states facing budget problems should be allowed to declare bankruptcy rather than expecting a federal bailout.

“It’s also difficult for states to plan on what to expect from the federal government when the president’s comments change day-to-day or conflict with what his subordinates are telling state officials,” Faulk said.

Newsom, who frequently played foil to the president before the coronavirus pandemic, has repeatedly denied that the pact was formed with any political intent. He said he has been in conversations with Brown and Inslee since he took office last year about strategies to expand their economies and reduce poverty, a relationship that was formalized through the pact.

“It was a spirit of collaboration that was alive and well and made visible,” Newsom said.

Chiefs of staff for the five governors hold weekly phone calls and keep each other updated by email about what’s developing in each of their states. They have swapped strategies on dealing with the federal government, testing practices, and safety guidelines for businesses.

But partnerships have been limited. The governors and legislative leaders for all five states jointly sent a letter to Congress calling for $1 trillion in direct aid to states and local governments nationwide.

Dana Williamson, who served as Cabinet secretary for Gov. Jerry Brown, said public expectations when the pact was announced were overblown. Sharing information and resources — as Western states have done for years during wildfire season and on policy issues like climate change — is what they needed most during this crisis, she said, because the Trump administration refused to play that role.

“Instead of maybe making a big mistake, you all know from each other’s mistakes,” she said. “The federal government has done such a bad job ... that the governors have had to step up.”

Pacts in other regions of the country are similarly informal. Leaders in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., have said they are working together, but they never created official frameworks for reopening.

The most concrete action came last week when Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island said they would form a regional supply chain to buy personal protective equipment. Newsom said the Western states have not considered a similar arrangement, and he has forged ahead alone on controversial deals like a $1 billion contract for medical masks produced by Chinese manufacturer BYD.

And when it comes to the biggest decision of the coronavirus pandemic — when they will ease restrictions on public life — each state is operating on its own timeline.

Daniel Tierney, a spokesman for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, said that even as states develop their own plans to reopen, “it’s absolutely crucial that we do coordinate,” because some of their biggest cities are near borders with other states.

The Republican governor formed an agreement in April with his counterparts in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Tierney said DeWine has been talking frequently with Indiana and Kentucky, which are right next to Cincinnati. Last month, he required counties in eastern Ohio to limit liquor sales to state residents, in an attempt to discourage visitors from across the border in Pennsylvania, which closed all its liquor stores.

“Not coordinating with other states can create situations where if any one is an outlier, you’re creating a massive shift,” Tierney said.

Counties in the Lake Tahoe region, which share tight economic ties across the California and Nevada border, faced some of those challenges early in the outbreak. Kate Thomas, the assistant county manager for Washoe County in Nevada, said its residents struggled with an influx of Californians to second homes and vacation rentals because Newsom issued a stay-at-home order before Nevada.

When in-restaurant dining, barbershops and salons were allowed to reopen last weekend, Washoe County required them to take reservations, Thomas said, in part to “keep people from rushing our area” from California, where those services are not yet available.

“It’s really being done very cautiously,” she said.

Category: Economic News, COVID-19, Advocacy News

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