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Coronavirus is dividing blue cities from their red states

Posted March 31, 2020 6:07 a.m. EDT
Updated March 31, 2020 8:29 a.m. EDT

— The struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic is opening a new front in the long-running conflict between blue cities and red states.

Across a wide array of states with Republican governors, many of the largest cities and counties -- most of them led by Democrats -- are moving aggressively to limit economic and social activity. State officials, meanwhile, are refusing to impose the strictest statewide standards to fight the virus.

A growing chorus of big-city officials in red states like Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas and Missouri are now urging their governors to establish uniform statewide rules, arguing that refusing to do so undercuts their local initiatives by increasing the risk the disease will cluster in neighboring areas -- from which it can easily reinfect their populations.

"We need a statewide 'safer at home' order," says Clay Jenkins, the county judge -- in effect, the county supervisor -- in Texas' Dallas County. The refusal by Gov. Greg Abbott to issue such a directive, Jenkins told me, in an argument echoed by many other municipal officials in red states, "makes it more likely that we will run out of hospital beds, and our curve will be steeper, more people will get sick at once."

Likewise, Robyn Tannehill, the mayor of Oxford, Mississippi (home of the University of Mississippi), told me in an interview that the absence of a statewide rule was undercutting their local efforts to control social interaction.

"As we are a regional health care and shopping destination, we have people coming through from surrounding counties that are not [imposing] a stay at home order," she said. "When they come here, you don't know who you are passing in the Kroger or the Walmart. ... I think a statewide stay-at-home order is very necessary."

The Republican governors most resisting statewide action have almost all argued that smaller counties should not face the same restrictions as larger ones. "What may be right for places like the large urban areas may not be right at this particular point in time for the" smaller counties with fewer cases, Abbott said last week.

While echoing that logic, other GOP governors resisting calls for action from large cities have also cited more ideological arguments. Missisippi Gov. Tate Reeves last week painted extensive shut-down orders as an expression of overly intrusive government. "In times such as these, you always have experts who believe they know best for everybody," he said. "You have some folks who think that government ought to take over everything in times of crisis — that they, as government officials, know better than individual citizens."

Similarly, Missouri's GOP governor, Mike Parson, argued that rather than government action "it is going to be personal responsibility" that wins the struggle against the virus.

While some Republican governors elsewhere have imposed strict uniform measures, the clash is dividing these states along familiar lines. In almost every state now, including pillars of the Republican coalition such as Texas and Georgia, Democrats have established a dominant position in the largest metropolitan areas. Simultaneously, both in the statewide contests and legislative elections, Republicans have grown increasingly reliant on support from outer suburbs, as well as small town and rural communities.

As the two parties' geographic bases of support have separated so profoundly, conflicts have grown more common in states where the big cities now tilt toward Democrats but the Republican dominance in small towns and rural communities (combined with continued competitiveness in suburban areas) still gives them the overall edge. The coronavirus is now pushing at that jagged divide, especially because it is now concentrated primarily in the largest population centers.

"It's just another manifestation of this very terrific polarization, the metros versus the nonmetro areas," says Richard Murray, a University of Houston political scientist. "Underlying it is the enormous demographic and economic divisions" between them.

Rural areas are less worried

Though concern is rising about the outbreak in all areas of the country, the share of rural residents who say they are "very worried" about contracting the disease still lagged well behind the number in urban and suburban areas in an ABC/Washington Post Poll released last week.

Across many states with Republican governors, these diverging perspectives have contributed to sharp splits between the states' policies and those adopted by the largest population centers.

In recent days, cities including Miami, Birmingham, Nashville, Atlanta, Jackson (Mississippi), Houston, Dallas, Austin, St. Louis, Phoenix and Tucson have adopted complete stay-at-home orders or other tight restrictions on movement and economic activity. But in each case, their state governments -- Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Missouri and Arizona -- have resisted comparable statewide limits.

That puts these Republican governors in contrast not only with the many Democratic governors who have issued sweeping statewide restrictions, but the few GOP governors -- including in Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia -- who have done so as well.

In a day of fast-moving developments some of these gaps narrowed on Monday, though they did not disappear. In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey issued a statewide stay-at-home order that contained significant exemptions, including for golf courses and beauty parlors. In Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Lee issued a statewide stay-at-home advisory, though not a mandatory order. And in Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a stay-at-home order for just four populous counties in South Florida.

As the coronavirus caseload rises in states across the country, the lack of statewide action is drawing more alarms from mayors and other municipal leaders, including some elected Republicans, in the red states' biggest metropolitan areas.

Last week, for instance, the mayors of Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington (the latter two Republicans), joined by the leaders of several local hospital systems, wrote Abbott to urge him to impose statewide restrictions. "[We] believe a statewide approach to limiting non-essential business or commerce -- rather than allowing a patchwork of regulations in neighboring cities and counties -- is imperative to slowing the spread of COVID-19, which does not stop at county lines or city limits," they wrote.

Likewise, a coalition of mayors from central Tennessee last week wrote Lee to urge statewide restrictions, as local medical leaders have proposed. "We feel strongly that the quickest path to recovery is a uniform response to this challenge," wrote the mayors group in a letter signed by Ken Moore, the mayor of Franklin, a fast-growing Nashville suburb.

In Arizona, Ducey acted only after pointed criticism from the Democratic mayors of Phoenix and Tucson and a letter earlier in the day urging a statewide shutdown from a group of nine mayors. Shortly after Ducey issued his order on Monday afternoon, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego wrote on Twitter: "This order is insufficient if he does not narrow his list of 'essential' services. Essential services during #COVID19 are not golf and beauty salons. They are first responders, grocers, pharmacists, and few others."

A patchwork of rules

Generally, the red state mayors have said they understand that rural parts of their state may not require exactly the same restrictions as larger population centers. In Mississippi, Tannehill, for instance, says very small communities without their own grocery stores might need to allow some restaurants to stay open to serve a few small groups at a time.

In an interview last weekend, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who is himself recovering from a coronavirus infection, said he was not now worried about controlling travel to his area from distant rural parts of the state where there is little infection. "Our bigger issue is getting people that are traveling from New York or traveling from abroad," Suarez told me. "I'm not really worrying about somebody traveling from Ocala," a city in Central Florida.

But Suarez, one of the few Republican mayors in the nation's largest cities, said he still preferred that DeSantis, a fellow Republican, issue a statewide stay-at-home rule because that would make it easier for him to coordinate policies with his own county of Miami-Dade and neighboring South Florida counties such as Broward. "Obviously a statewide standard would make it easier because there doesn't have to be any debate or issue," he said this weekend. "I feel like I've been pulling the county to come along and so that's been the frustration for me."

On Monday morning, DeSantis, after resisting a statewide shutdown for days, shifted direction and took a middle course: He agreed to impose a common "safer at home" order on four southeast counties -- Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe.

Jenkins, the Dallas County executive, and a Democrat, likewise said statewide action would provide more assurance that all of his neighboring counties in North Texas follow the same approach. "It requires hours of my day to be spent lobbying the various jurisdictions that have now enacted a Dallas County safer at home model," he says.

The difficulty of holding to a common front across north Texas without a statewide order will increase, Jenkins says, if President Donald Trump, in fact, calls for reopening more economic activity sooner than public health experts prefer. (Trump, after last week urging an early resumption of business, pivoted on Sunday to acknowledge social distancing measures would need to remain in place through April.)

"All of my compatriots in every other county are Republicans, who are elected largely in the Republican primary by who can get to the right and hug Trump more than the other guy," Jenkins says. As a result, he says, if Trump calls for reopening, "it puts tremendous pressure on them that they will be harming their constituents, that it's a hoax, it's not that serious, that they need to put the desire of the President over the strong guidance of the medical community. So it's absolutely harmful."

Erin Zwiener, a Texas Democratic state representative, represents fast-growing suburbs south of Austin. She says that even apart from the President's comments, the governor's refusal to act makes it more difficult to overcome resistance to stay-at-home orders from powerful local business interests.

"It means that the local leaders have a harder time building the argument," she said. "If the governor doesn't think it's important enough to act, why does the county have to act?" The result has been "just a patchwork" of different rules even "where you have these communities going right into each other. The lines are pretty arbitrary and the virus doesn't respect them."

Reversing an argument

In resisting statewide action, Republican governors such as Abbott in Texas, DeSantis in Florida, Brian Kemp in Georgia and Parson in Missouri have stressed above all the need for local flexibility in responding to the crisis. Rather than impose common limits across their own states, DeSantis and Abbott have imposed quarantines on people arriving from other states, particularly the New York region.

Ironically, stressing local flexibility is the opposite of the argument that GOP governors and legislatures have made over the past decade as they have passed an escalating series of laws to preempt or overturn liberal municipal ordinances on an array of subjects.

Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia University Law School who studies state preemption efforts, says he "nearly fell out of his chair" when he heard Abbott call for local control in responding to the coronavirus because Texas has been among the most aggressive Republican-leaning states in preempting laws from Democratic-leaning cities over the past decade.

In those red states, Republican legislators have typically argued for invalidating local ordinances on the grounds that "there needs to be uniform statewide rules," Briffault says. "That seems inconsistent with the [current] position that if you think it's OK for your county you go ahead, but we are not going to deal with the rest of the state. It is certainly the opposite argument from the one they are normally making."

The tension between Republican-run state governments and Democratic-leaning city governments has notably intensified over the past decade. The most famous of these confrontations came in 2016, when North Carolina's GOP-controlled Legislature and then-Republican governor collaborated on the so-called "bathroom bill" that overturned a city of Charlotte ordinance intended to ensure equal rights for transgender individuals. But that conflict was only one drop in a torrent of state efforts to overturn city and county rules through recent years.

As Briffault documented in a 2018 law review article, states have acted to overturn a wide array of city policies, with the most common collisions occurring around municipal initiatives to raise the minimum wage, establish paid sick leave or family leave for workers, regulate gun sales and ownership, bar local rent control ordinances, establish environmental rules such as bans on plastic bags, or limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.

The "preponderance of ... preemptive actions and proposals have been advanced by Republican-dominated state governments, embrace conservative economic and social causes, and respond to -- and are designed to block -- relatively progressive regulatory actions adopted by activist cities and counties," Briffault wrote in his law review article.

The current struggle over responding to the coronavirus, in one respect, inverts this pattern of conflict: In this case, it's the blue cities and counties pleading for a statewide standard and the red governors touting regional variation. But in the larger sense, the pointed collision over enforcing social distancing extends the underlying dynamic now driving politics in so many GOP-leaning states: an intensifying struggle for control of each state's direction between major metropolitan areas that are growing more Democratic and a tenuous Republican majority that revolves around the outer suburbs and small towns beyond them.

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