With over 745,000 COVID-19 cases and 39,000 deaths across the United States and its territories—and all 50 states under a disaster declaration—there is no doubt that the nation is in the midst of a crisis. While that fact is universally recognized, the debate lies in how to deal with this pandemic crisis. Most states have enacted stay-at-home orders, but several others, including Arkansas and Iowa, have not. Although the federal government provided some states, such as Oklahoma and Delaware, with testing kits, ventilators, and personal protective equipment (PPE), many states are left to deal with the crisis on their own.
California, a state that reported one of the earliest outbreaks in the country, enacted a stay-at-home order early on, allowing the state to maintain some control over the spread of the virus. California has almost three times the population of New York, but New York has over seven times more cases than California. Mia Liang ’23 lives in California and argues that her state has handled the coronavirus well because they started dealing with it early.
“My general area, the Bay Area, was the first to shut down,” Liang said. “Our shelter-in-place order came before the rest of California and, as far as I know, before any other state as well. Santa Clara county, where I’m from, in the first few months was seeing COVID in the United States and our county had the highest amount of COVID cases in all of California, so we shut down first. After the shelter-in-place order came out, it was quickly extended to the rest of the state.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, had proposed a citywide stay-at-home order early on in the crisis, but was prevented from doing so by the New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, who wanted to wait to enact a statewide order. Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) Senator Katelin Penner ’22 argues that the debates between de Blasio and Cuomo is what prevented New York from acting early on against the virus.
“I think Cuomo didn’t act early enough,” Penner said. “He was much more interested in participating in a political war of words with Bill de Blasio about what to do. De Blasio was hesitant to act at first, but once things got bad he was the first to call for a stay at home order and Cuomo waited a full week after [to enact it]…[this] absolutely detracted from actually responding to the coronavirus.”
Penner also believes that New York has failed to address the large outbreaks in its prisons, which have become epicenters for the coronavirus because of how difficult it is for the prisoners to social distance.
“There are hundreds of prisoners in the New York state prison system, especially in Rikers Island, who have the coronavirus,” Penner said. “[Cuomo] has done essentially nothing to free prisoners so that there’s not a more severe outbreak in the prison system, which is something that other governors have done. The governor of New Jersey freed a large portion of prisoners, the governor of California freed a large portion of prisoners, even the governor of Arkansas.”
Despite different rates of outbreak, the ability of both New York and California to take necessary action is dependent, at least in part, on the response of the federal government. Cuomo has been criticizing President Donald Trump for failing to provide New York with enough ventilators and PPE, but Trump has responded by saying New York needs to obtain ventilators for themselves.
“Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment—try getting it yourselves,” Trump said at a press conference in March. “We will be backing you, but try getting it yourselves. Point of sales, much better, much more direct if you can get it yourself.”
Liang argues that California’s coronavirus response could be improved, but only with the help of the federal government.
“I think California’s hands are largely tied by the federal government and I think that I would be remiss to say that I feel like California can improve without the federal government improving,” Liang stated. “Obviously [working on our own] limits the amount of funds we can provide and limits the amount of resources we have because resources like testing kits, safety equipment, and ventilators are being regulated by the federal government, so it’s hard to see exactly how we could improve without movement.”
WSA Senator Isha Jha ’23 argues that California has been successful so far and will continue to improve because they are working without the help of the federal government.
“I think [being independent] is the principle under which California has been operating since Donald Trump assumed office, and I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re doing better than everyone else,” Jha said. “We’re not asking the federal government for things, we don’t need the federal government. Just the other day, [Governor] Gavin Newsom said we’re a nation state, which given the size of our economy and the population, we don’t need Donald Trump and I would argue he needs us more than we need him.”
Whether or not California is working independently because they want to or because they have to is debatable, but California is not the only state working independently. The president has left many decisions regarding the coronavirus responses up to individual states to determine, which is why the state responses have varied so dramatically. On April 16, he released the federal guidelines for reopening the American economy, but ultimately left the decisions to reopen entirely up to the governors. This has led states like Florida and North Carolina to decide to open public beaches and loosen their social distancing guidelines. Most of the arguments in support of opening up now is that the economy will suffer greatly if businesses remain closed.
“We need to increase testing, isolate people, treat people, and until we can do that there’s no way we should open any of the economy,” Jha said. “I understand the concerns with the stock market and unemployment levels, but if there’s hundreds of thousands of people dying, there’s no economy. I really don’t see how we’re going to open up the country if 10 percent of the workforce is gone. It’s ridiculous.”
This debate about businesses staying closed to flatten the curve or opening up to revive the economy has led to protests against stay-at-home orders in various states across the country like Michigan and Illinois. Trump tweeted in support of the protests. While these protests represent a minority view across the country, with 60% of Americans supporting stay-at-home orders, partisanship has still affected the coronavirus response across the country. States with Republican voters tended to have a slower coronavirus response, enacting stay-at-home orders and school closures later. About 78% of registered Democrats agreed that COVID-19 was a major threat to the United States, as opposed to 52% of registered Republicans.
“We’ve never had such a bizarre political and social environment that led to this breeding ground for partisan views and attacks on one another in a time of a pandemic,” Liang said. “The division in this country is harming our response.”
Liang believes that this partisanship has to do with how much American politics focuses on reelection, which leads many government officials to have to decide whether or not to stay loyal to their party leaders.
“I think something that has always struck me about politics in the United States as opposed to politics in other countries is how campaign oriented our politicians are. They’re so focused on reelection,” Liang said. “At the end of the day, it really comes down to what kind of legacy you want to leave as a politician. Do you want to leave the legacy of being reelected or the legacy of saving lives?”
Olivia Ramseur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org