In early March, Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown ramped up COVID-19 precautions.
Each day it seemed a like a new order was put into place in Washington or Oregon. On March 12, Inslee closed schools in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. The same day, even with significantly fewer confirmed cases, Brown closed schools across Oregon — only hours after saying she would keep them open. The next day Inslee closed schools statewide.
On March 15, Inslee announced restrictions on eating at restaurants. The following day Brown announced a similar order. Then on March 23, Inslee took the biggest step yet — announcing a stay-at-home order for Washingtonians. Brown took the same action on the same day, after Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and other leaders and health care officials pressured Brown to make the decision.
Watching the orders fly back and forth between the governors, who lead neighboring states, was like watching “policy pingpong,” said Jim Moore, an assistant professor at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. Moore said the back-and-forth provided insight on the political psychology at play.
“You are getting a lot of pressure from your constituents, and other people in government,” Moore said. “Are you doing the right thing, and soon enough to make a difference? Having a neighboring state just adds pressure.”
Making matters more difficult for the governors has been the response, or lack of response at times, at the federal level. President Donald Trump initially did not seem to take the pandemic seriously. For example, he said on Feb. 27 that “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”
Legislators have been disappointed in Trump’s delayed order of the Defense Production Act, which helps boost personal protection equipment and ventilator supplies.
Christopher Adolph, an associate professor with the University of Washington’s Department of Political Science, said it would be wrong to call the governors’ back-and-forth a version of political one-upping. Instead it shows state and local officials are doing the best they can to manage a situation that has, at times, been hindered by the federal government.
“In the absence of leadership from the president and federal government, governors, mayors and public health authorities at the state and local level had no choice but to lead on containing and managing the coronavirus epidemic,” Adolph said in a March 19 email. “Because of another federal failure — slow and flawed testing for the virus — states are operating under extreme uncertainty about how many cases are present in their communities. This has led to rapid but uncertain innovation at the state level, where each day brings new warnings and new imperatives.”
Adolph said states where leaders delay social distancing measures could see greater caseloads and more hospital system strain than states where officials act early and decisively. Washington and Oregon have generally been among the first states to issue restrictions, Adolph said.
If some states don’t take the response as seriously, that could lead to a re-emergence of outbreaks, given how hyper-mobile the U.S. population is, said Ken Thorpe, the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Health Policy at Emory University in Atlanta.
Thorpe, who served as deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services from 1993 to 1995, said that bordering states should be coordinating with each other to distribute resources, especially for hospital beds.
But Thorpe also said the federal government should lead the way when it comes to virus mitigation measures, such as social distancing. After President Trump said he wanted to relax social distancing rules by Easter, April 12, his coronavirus task force convinced him to keep the guidance in place until at least April 30.
“You want some uniform federal rules,” Thorpe said. “Several states have done stay-at-home rules, and from what we can tell, it looks like the social distancing measures can have an effect. There’s some early data that shows these measures may be providing some assistance.”
So far, the biggest missteps from the federal government have been tied to a slow, botched rollout of COVID-19 testing, Thorpe said. That rollout, which included faulty lab kits and issues in getting labs certified for testing, “really cost a lot of time,” Thorpe said.
Now, supply-chain issues have started to trickle down, and counties have encountered problems procuring testing supplies such as swabs and protective gear for medical workers. States are now competing for important resources, and this has created a “Darwinian approach to federalism,” as former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley told Politico.
Some of Trump’s aides see the pandemic as a great test of local leadership, as Politico reported, but it also gives the administration an opportunity to remove itself from the response — and from criticism of the response.
Recently, Trump has feuded with Inslee, a former presidential candidate and critic of the president, and told governors they should be “appreciative” to him if they want aid. On Sunday, Trump called Inslee a “nasty person.” Inslee responded that he won’t let the personal attacks get in the way of Washington’s response effort.
According to The Associated Press, Inslee pushed back against Trump on a phone call with governors last week, when Trump said the federal government would serve as “backup,” while Washington struggles to find critical supplies to contain the virus.
“I don’t want you to be the backup quarterback, we need you to be Tom Brady here,” Inslee said.