Covid’s Persistence Leads GOP, Democrats to Same Half Measures

In the pandemic’s first months, the gulf between Republican and Democratic governors was vast. Allied with President Donald Trump, most Republicans refused to impose basic public-health restrictions such as mask-wearing, while Democrats closed huge swaths of their states’ economies.

Today, many find themselves implementing similar, somewhat half-hearted,
measures — a bipartisan weariness aimed less at deep change than easing the strain on medical systems and buying time until a vaccine arrives.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has imposed an almost-statewide curfew of 10 p.m., a move that closes bars and restaurants early but stops far short of the broad shutdowns ordered in March. The Democrat said data show he needs to stop an increase in virus-related hospitalizations.

North Dakota’s Republican governor, Doug Burgum, reversed course after months of opposition to mandatory mask-wearing and imposed a statewide order for facial coverings. He also closed restaurants for in-person dining at 10 p.m., put steeper capacity restrictions on events, and paused winter sports.

In announcing the restrictions, Burgum said he, too, was taking a data-driven approach to address a surge in hospitalizations: “Our situation has changed, and we must change with it.”

Republicans Freed

Trump’s election loss Nov. 3 gave Republicans a modicum of freedom, and the pandemic’s rampage through red states has moved them to act. Democrats have expended much of their political capital, and their constituents may not tolerate more inconvenience and isolation.

“They have two crises that they have to balance, and they’re looking for that middle ground,” said Joel Fox, a Republican campaign strategist and newsletter editor in Los Angeles. “One is the economy, the other is the pandemic.”

In theory, governors of both parties have room to enact tougher, more effective restrictions, but they face opposition and economic consequences, said Janet Baseman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington in Seattle. What’s emerging, she said, is a Swiss cheese model of partial restrictions, creating holes that let the virus in.

More Republican-led states, including New Hampshire and Iowa, have introduced mandatory mask wearing. Others are leaning in that direction. In Wyoming, Governor Mark Gordon responded to a spike in cases by restricting the size of gatherings, with exemptions for faith-related meetings. He refrained from ordering business closings, but has suggested a mask order could be next.

“There will be changes,” said Gordon, who faces hospitals nearing capacity. “They will be more restrictive.”

Up to You’

Utah Governor Gary Herbert, another Republican, cut the Thanksgiving turkey in half: relaxing restrictions on multifamily gatherings while telling residents it wasn’t a good idea to invite guests.

“What you do in the confines of your own home is going to be up to you,” Herbert said Thursday as the state was breaking daily records for infections and deaths.

Still, battles continue. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, has gone to court to prevent local officials from imposing stricter precautions, a development Austin Mayor Steve Adler, a Democrat, called “unfortunate.” If Adler could, he said, he would impose limits on most businesses lower than the state’s 75% capacity rule and perhaps set tighter controls on gatherings.

On Friday, four Arizona mayors called on Republican Governor Doug Ducey to take stronger actions to curtail rising cases. The most important measure, they said, is passing a statewide mask mandate to supplement existing local requirements.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat, criticized Ducey for agreeing that masks protect people but nonetheless declining to issue a mandate. “You can’t say you believe in it and not implement the policy,” Gallego said. “It’s like winking and introducing uncertainty.”

Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services secretary, has defended the state’s overnight curfew as a way to prevent the need for later, harsher measures. It also aims to protect hospitals from a sudden flood of Covid patients.

“We want to make sure we protect that hospital capacity, so those who need care can get it,” Ghaly said.

Failed Curfews

Other medical experts, including William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard University, said partial measures like curfews have often failed in countries such as Israel and the Netherlands. Broader restrictions are necessary, he said, particularly on gatherings involving young people.

State and federal governments then need to provide financial aid to the unemployed and businesses forced to close. “I feel the pain of the people hit economically,” Hanage said. “Those people deserve to be helped.”

What remains noticeably absent is a robust federal response, he said. Preoccupied with trying to change the election’s outcome, Trump hasn’t implemented new policies. President-elect Joe Biden, who promised in the campaign that his response would be tougher, has ruled out national lockdowns.

“Every region, every area, every community can be different,” Biden said Thursday. “So there’s no circumstance that I can see which would require a total national shutdown.”

Vivek Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general who’s one of Biden’s top three advisers on the virus, said that based on what the nation has learned about Covid-19 since the spring, the preferred approach to fighting it is “a dial that we turn up and down, depending on severity.”

That has left some governors, including Rhode Island’s Gina Raimondo, taking more dramatic steps. She’s closing bowling alleys, movie theaters, casinos and other places people gather indoors on Nov. 30. The Democrat said the two-week “pause” was aimed at reducing the spread and preventing harsher restrictions at Christmas.

“I really had hoped to avoid this, because I know the financial pain that’s going on in Rhode Island,” she said. “But I’m in a world of all bad choices, and I’m trying to pick the least bad of the options.”

— With assistance by David R Baker, and Brenna Goth

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