WASHINGTON — There were people on the beaches, and Larry Hogan was furious. Normally the governor of Maryland might be pleased to see citizens flocking to Ocean City and Assateague instead of decamping for the warmer climes of South Carolina or Florida. But with the coronavirus poised to strike his state, there were considerations beside tourism on the mind of the 63-year-old Republican.
He had already forbidden gatherings of more than 10 people, but it was clear that some were not listening. So more had to be done. Last Saturday he closed the state’s beaches, leaving Maryland’s 7,719 miles of shoreline to piping plovers and sand crabs.
“They were treating it like vacation or spring break,” Hogan told Yahoo News in a conversation earlier this week about people who were disregarding social distancing guidelines.
So the guidelines had to be made stricter.
“There’s no one on the beach now,” Hogan says with gruff pride.
Nor is he likely to take the opportunity to enjoy those empty beaches himself, as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie infamously did during a 2017 government shutdown. A two-time cancer survivor, Hogan describes a grueling schedule of battling the coronavirus to keep Maryland’s 6 million residents safe. Whether in a briefing with state officials (in a black fleece Maryland State Police vest) or in a CNN appearance (Army National Guard fleece, also black), he projects a serious, studious demeanor.
His manner is so apolitical that it would be difficult to tell whether Hogan is a Republican or Democrat. He is, in fact, a Republican, one who was reelected in 2018 in a state in which both legislative chambers are bluer than the Chesapeake Bay. But his is a legitimately independent brand of Republicanism, rooted in his father’s having been the first Republican member of Congress to support the impeachment of Richard Nixon.
The younger Hogan ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 1981 and, also unsuccessfully, in 1992. He went to Annapolis to work in state government in 2003. With his mastery of bureaucratic detail, Hogan seems so fundamentally gubernatorial that it would be easy to forget that he was seriously discussed only months ago as a challenger to President Trump for the Republican primaries.
Hogan declined to challenge Trump, but his role in the coronavirus crisis has been a reminder of why he seemed like such an attractive alternative to Trump.
“It’s hard not to compare the governor of Maryland and the president of the United States,” says Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who represents Montgomery County’s liberal suburbs just north of Washington, D.C. Hogan has been, Raskin says, a welcome counterbalance to Trump’s “irresponsible” and “inconsistent” handling of the outbreak, which has killed more than 5,000 Americans.
“He is acting based on science, he is based on expert opinion, and he is not making things up as he goes along,” Raskin says. That the suburbs Raskin represents were among the few places in Maryland to vote for Hogan’s challenger for the governorship have not resulted in retribution of the kind the aforementioned Christie exercised on a Democratic mayor, which became known as Bridgegate and led to his own undoing.
“Hogan is acting the way one hopes a chief executive would act in a time like this,” Raskin says.
Straightforward and pragmatic, Hogan says he has no superpowers, political or otherwise, that have helped him in the fight against the coronavirus. “The crisis found me,” Hogan says. Of course, the crisis found everyone, sometimes in states of denial, confusion or resolve.
“I saw this coming very early on,” Hogan says. He watched the crisis worsen in China throughout January and concluded that it was only a matter of time before the coronavirus, which causes a potentially fatal respiratory disease called COVID-19, arrived in the United States.
As head of the bipartisan National Governors Association, Hogan had uncommon reach. On Feb. 9, he convened a meeting at which members of the White House coronavirus task force briefed more than two dozen governors. The briefing was led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Robert Redfield, who heads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
After that briefing, Hogan says he “sounded the alarm bells” about the coronavirus, even as Trump continued throughout February to downplay the potential devastation the virus would cause. He wasn’t the only one, of course. As late as the second week of March, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was telling people to patronize restaurants.
The virus did not arrive in Maryland in earnest until early March. On March 6, just as Maryland surpassed a half dozen confirmed coronavirus cases, Hogan created a state coronavirus task force packed with pedigreed experts with ties to Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland. Six days after that, Hogan made Maryland the second state in the nation after Ohio to close all of its schools.
Hogan says he has signed 28 executive orders related to the coronavirus. Among the most recent of these was a shelter-in-place directive issue in concert with the mayor of Washington, D.C., and the governor of Virginia, both of whom are Democrats. The three orders, issued at the same time earlier this week, have in effect shut down one of the largest metropolitan regions in the United States.
“We have surge modeling that is very frightening,” he adds. To avoid the kind of shortages now affecting hospitals in New York, Hogan instituted a plan to add 6,000 hospital beds in preparation for a surge.
Hogan’s response offers a striking contrast to that of some other Republicans, like Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi, who last week said he didn’t want to play the “dictator” in shutting down his state. Earlier this week, Brian Kemp of Georgia admitted that he’d been making public health decisions without even a basic understanding of how the coronavirus worked.
If some are in the thrall of alternative facts or gut feelings, Hogan refuses to be among them. “I’ve been listening to the scientists and the doctors,” he says.
Hogan declines to criticize Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a fellow Republican who has been slow to take restrictive measures, even as his state seemed poised for a coronavirus outbreak. “He’s one of the few governors in the nation I haven’t spoken to,” Hogan says, noting that DeSantis has also not been involved with the National Governors Association.
DeSantis resisted closing beaches thronging with spring breakers until Wednesday. Some think it may be too late, given how crowded some of those beaches have been in recent days and weeks.
The governor has not been shy, however, to criticize Trump. Last week, the president mused — fleetingly — that the country might start returning to work and ordinary life by Easter. Hogan would have none of it. Lifting the shutdown order before the crisis had peaked would be “very harmful,” he said, making little secret of what he thought of Trump’s optimistic projection. “We would obviously not listen to that.”
Earlier this week, he also countered Trump’s suggestion that coronavirus testing was widely available and easily accessible. “That’s just not true,” Hogan told NPR.
Speaking to Yahoo News, Hogan said that while Trump was “getting a little more clear” in his daily coronavirus press briefings, “some of the messaging is unfortunate.” He clearly thought the portions of those briefings devoted to scientific expertise — usually from Fauci or Dr. Deborah Birx — were more valuable to the procession of industry executives praising Trump’s “decisive leadership.”
“I think they could be two separate things, maybe,” Hogan says of the briefings.
Hogan has been one of several governors praised for compensating for the shortfalls in the federal response. Foremost in this group has been New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose daily press briefings — factual, emotional, captivating — have become compulsory television. There has even been talk of Cuomo replacing former Vice President Joe Biden as the eventual Democratic nominee for president. The talk is unrealistic, yet it is revealing all the same.
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California has also been lauded for putting California under lockdown early enough to prevent a catastrophe in the most populous state in the country. He too is expected to run for president one day (though that day is probably not going to be in 2020).
Hogan may not wager his hard-won political capital by challenging Trump, but he has demonstrated that he is the rare Republican unafraid of the president. In an interview on Wednesday with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi singled out Hogan, Cuomo and Newsom as three heroes of the coronavirus crisis, complimenting the Maryland governor for “speaking truth about what the challenge is.”
Michael Steele was the Republican lieutenant governor of Maryland at the time when Hogan served as the secretary of gubernatorial appointments. Steele remembers being impressed by Hogan’s mastery of facts. “He listens,” says the former lieutenant governor, who has emerged as an unstinting Trump critic. “He listens to the people who know. He listens to the people who are experts."
The two men, both moderate Republicans, have since become friends. Watching the governor at work today, Steele describes his efforts with one word: “phenomenal.”
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