How US governors are fighting coronavirus – and Donald Trump

Daniel Strauss
Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

America’s state governors have found themselves under an intense national spotlight in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The additional scrutiny has also highlighted an evolving dynamic between these chief executives who operate the country’s states and a White House run by a mercurial president whose public statements and policy turns are often impossible to predict.

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As the virus crisis has grown stronger governors’ daily press conferences and media calls on the coronavirus have become primetime events for a worried and often fearful populace. Governors, the typically aloof top state officials, are currently some of the most reliable sources of information on confirmed coronavirus cases and updates on medical supplies in response to the virus.

“The governors are acting in a way governors traditionally act, it just so happens that governors have more of an audience for it now,” said the former Delaware governor Jack Markell, a Democrat.

Responses to the pandemic have varied from state to state. Partially because not every governor has the same amount of authority. Some governors can activate the national guard or order schools closed essentially on their own. Others have had to take legislative routes or make other bureaucratic moves.

There have been some markings of a deeper ideological divide to responding to the virus. Some Republican governors, such as Arizona’s Doug Ducey, have loudly touted new partnerships with private business to fight the pandemic while some Democrats have leaned more on executive orders to slow the outbreak down.

Governors have also received more attention from Donald Trump than they otherwise would.

New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has received both praise and criticism from the president. Cuomo has regularly been in touch with Trump but at times criticized the federal government’s help to his state. Illinois’ governor, JB Pritzker, and Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, , have gotten into public spats with Trump on Twitter.

At the same time, Republican and Democratic governors are learning how to shape their public comments under the intense scrutiny of a TV-obsessed president eager to return praise and respond to criticism with more criticism. It is a tough tightrope to walk and in the face of dealing with a pandemic comes with life-or-death high stakes.

California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, usually an eager critic of the president, has repeatedly praised the Trump administration for how it has responded to the crisis. Newsom has praised Trump for the president’s “focus on treatments”.

California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, speaks in Rancho Cordova, California, on 23 March. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Conversely, Pritzker found himself in a Twitter feud with the president where, at one point, the top Illinois Democrat called Trump a carnival barker. Trump has also fumed at Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, calling him a “snake”.

“It’s a two-way street,” Trump said of dealing with governors during a Fox News town hall. “They have to treat us well.”

There’s been an increased level of coordination and note trading between governors as well. Usually, each governor is mostly siloed off from even their closest neighbors. But conference calls with the White House or one-on-one calls and joint statements between governors have become more regular.

We’ve just started texting and calling each other as we look to [ask] ‘Why did you do this? What was the thought process?'

Kansas’ governor, Laura Kelly

“There is a lot of chatter amongst governors,” said Kansas’ governor, Laura Kelly, a Democrat, in an interview with the Guardian. “We’ve just started texting and calling each other as we look to [ask] ‘Why did you do this? What was the thought process behind this?’ as we’re trying to make decisions for our own states.”

The National Governors Association, the nonpartisan umbrella organization, has helped to facilitate conference calls between the governors and a White House. The Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association have been sharing information about what governors have been doing on the pandemic with their members.

A call between Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, and Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, on Covid-19 was listed on DeSantis’s public schedule in mid-March. Whitmer, a Democrat, and Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine issued a joint statement urging Trump to take extra steps to protect the auto industry from financial ruin during the pandemic and resulting economic collapse.

The White House has been interacting with governors regularly. South Dakota’s governor, Kristi Noem, talked extensively with Larry Kudlow, the director of Trump’s National Economic Council, on Wednesday. On Thursday the Trump administration released a letter sent to every governor detailing how it planned to release new guidelines for classifying counties as “high-risk”, “medium-risk” or “low-risk” on the coronavirus. The Trump administration has regularly held conference calls with governors.

According to a Republican aide to one of the governors on those calls, oftentimes the calls start out with “Vice-President Mike Pence giving an update on what the latest is that’s going on on a federal level”. Then Dr Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the Trump administration’s coronavirus taskforce, will give a medical update on the virus. Then governors are free to ask questions. The calls have been cordial and fairly non combative. There was another one on Thursday and one planned for next week.

“It really, probably more than anything, continues to be a discussion about supply chains and quantities,” Kelly said. “I think every governor is experiencing a problem with that. A problem with getting tests done and getting test results back.”

As governors have enjoyed additional national and local attention, New York’s Cuomo has received an outsized amount. That’s partially because New York has been one of the most hardest hit locations of the virus. He has seen more press than any other governor, even ones being mentioned as possible presidential candidates in 2024.

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“Quite honestly, he has done a wonderful job of communicating and keeping people informed,” Kelly said. She pointed out that New York has really been a “hotbed” for the virus and that “it’s such a huge driver of all things American – it’s our financial sector, it’s all sorts of things”.

Elsewhere there has been an unusual level of agreement among governors. In the community of governors there’s a growing, bipartisan level of skepticism about that the US could reopen by Easter, as Trump is hoping for. Asked if that’s feasible, Kelly said: “No, and I think it’s very unhelpful to even say those things.”

Similarly, during a press conference on Thursday, Noem, when pressed, doubted that her state would be back to normal soon.

“I do not think South Dakota will be back to normal for many months – many months,” Noem said.