ALBANY, N.Y. — When seven northeastern states announced they would reopen their virus-shuttered economies in lockstep when the time was right, it was seen as a very-public flexing of local government muscle when Washington was trying to push responsibility onto individual states.
But it turns out that the politics of reopening still very much recognize state lines.
Four weeks later, it’s clear that a single set of marching orders is out of the question, even for small co-dependent states with porous borders. When it comes to how and when to reopen their economies, the collaborative approach is giving way to the individual needs of the coalition’s seven members.
The idea, prompted by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, seemed simple and logical: The virus, as Cuomo said repeatedly, knows no borders. And so recovery ought to be borderless as well, so that one state’s reopening didn’t conflict with another’s continued lockdown.
The same has been true elsewhere as states in the West, Midwest and South that announced their own reopening compacts aren’t having any better results from their agreements, which were never as ambitious as the plans laid out by Cuomo.
Closing was the easy part, Cuomo said. The next phase figures to be tougher. “Reopening," he said, "is more of an art form.”
In the Northeast, coordination proved difficult on the critical issue of school closing. On Friday, Cuomo ordered New York’s schools to remain shut through the end of the year — a proclamation made without similar announcements from neighboring Connecticut and New Jersey, despite holding off for weeks in hopes of ensuring tri-state coordination.
New Jersey and Connecticut knew the decision was coming, two officials involved in the talks said, but they were unable to come to consensus with their local education officials before Cuomo’s self-imposed deadline. Murphy closed his state’s schools the following Monday, and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont is expected to follow suit in the coming days.
Meanwhile, Lamont said on Thursday that Connecticut would begin reopening a swath of businesses after May 20 — nail and hair salons, retail, and outdoor areas for bars, restaurants, museums and zoos.
Cuomo has said New York will consider allowing work to resume in certain manufacturing and construction industries in parts of the state on May 15. Restaurants and arts and entertainment venues will be among the last sectors to reopen in full, he said Monday.
Murphy has laid out a series of steps to contain infection rates for reopening, but has otherwise said decisions will be made on a rolling basis according to whether residents behave like “knuckleheads.”
Executive staff from the offices of multiple governors told POLITICO that they are in daily text, email and phone communication with their counterparts, an unheard-of arrangement during normal times. And the seven Northeast states — New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Delaware — announced Sunday that they would purchase medical supplies collectively to avoid competing with each other in the global marketplace.
That collaborative spirit, however, has been hard to conjure in other aspects of the regional restart.
“The problem we have with the regional compact is, if everyone’s going to make their own decision, what’s the compact?” said New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat, in an interview. “From a distance, it doesn’t look like there is [a compact].”
A regional approach, Cuomo said when he introduced the concept, was essential not just for the restart but for pooling data on the virus. It would be, he said, “a cooperative effort where we learn from each other and share information.”
Just a few hours after the Northeast alliance was announced, the three West Coast states said they would form a coalition of their own, with the same goal in mind — collaborative decision making and coordinated reopenings. President Donald Trump’s assertion shortly thereafter that he had "‘total authority" to decide when states should re-open seemed to prompt another round of coalition-building. The West Coast alliance broadened, new regional pacts were formed in the South and Midwest, and the outlines of a state-led collaborative approach to recovery seemed to be taking shape.
John Yoo, a University of California at Berkeley law professor and former official in the George W. Bush administration, said the regional alliances reflected states’ frustrations with the Trump administration. Yoo said the states were telling Trump, “We have so little confidence in you, we’re going to go ahead and fight for ourselves.”
But in the Northeast, at least, it may be easier to spot the differences than the similarities in the states’ approaches.
Public beaches up and down the Atlantic Coast have closed on various time lines. New York City does yet not have a plan to open. But in Delaware and Massachusetts, state-run coasts are open for “passive recreational activities that only involve transitory movement” and “solitary beach fishing,” although most parking areas are closed.
Golf courses and marinas — now aligned in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — have opened and closed on various time lines.
A widespread testing and tracing effort — financed in part by former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg — has been announced for New Jersey, Connecticut and New York to help restart New York City’s commuter-dependent economy. But there is no similar plan for Philadelphia, which attracts workers from Delaware and New Jersey in addition to Pennsylvania.
In New York, Cuomo said on April 29 that hospitals in 35 upstate counties could resume elective surgeries, but not those in the more heavily populated downstate region. Those procedures are on hold in New Jersey, but are being carried out in Philadelphia, a discrepancy that hasn’t gone unnoticed by antsy politicians.
Variations on that theme are playing out across the country.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has described his state’s pact with Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Colorado as a matter of sharing infection data and other on-the-ground facts. Newsom said he collaborated with his Washington and Oregon counterparts on allowing elective surgeries to resume in the Golden State and incorporated their counsel into his reopening framework.
Monitoring cross-border traffic — which Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak cited in discussing out-of-state visitors to Las Vegas — has not yet been discussed, Newsom said, although it’s possible they will eventually develop “some heads-up, some coordination” at some point.
But even as Newsom seeks a unified front with neighboring states, he’s been unable to get settled on a coordinated approach to California’s own reopening. Simmering frustration is flaring into open revolt in counties that have recorded far fewer cases than stricken urban centers, with some local leaders defying the state by forging ahead on their own reopening courses. On Monday, Newsom extended an olive branch by saying counties would assume more autonomy.
“Many of these counties, many of these regions have done already a ton of work in this space and they’re ready to go, and so I have great expectation that you’re going to see a lot of these communities with local certification in place,” he said.
That’s a concern shared by the Midwestern states’ alliance — where places like Illinois and Ohio took early, dramatic action to curb the coronavirus. But the bigger issues involved neighboring states that are not part of the Midwest collaboration: Iowa, where a stay-home order was never issued, and Missouri, which declared one two weeks after Illinois, but saw a large outbreak in St. Louis.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said health officials are “keeping a very close eye” on Illinois counties that border St. Louis, but has not looked to stop people from traveling.
The Southern collaboration seems to be even more informal, and has had no known meetings or discussions about shared objectives.
It was announced by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on April 20, but none of the other state governors — representing Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama — have acknowledged it, talked about it publicly or responded to questions about the group’s logistics. DeSantis last week began phase one of reopening Florida’s economy, giving no indication that there was any input from other southern states.
To be sure, the pacts aren’t meant to be entirely uniform. Cuomo said as much during a briefing on April 25.
The goal in the Northeast, he said, is to avoid a rush out of one state and into another for a service.
“People have cars and people are mobile and people are being cooped up,” Cuomo said. “And whatever you do you could trigger a reaction in that tri-state area. And you could see people across that tri-state area come to your region because you are now the place that I can get a haircut. You are now the place that I can walk down Main Street and I can get an ice cream cone and have the kids go in and shop.”
Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s top aide, said discussions about regional approaches emphasize border areas between states.
“We’re working towards trying to come to a consensus on principles, but there is an acknowledgment within the states that everyone is going to be on their own time line,” she said. “The major goal is to not undermine one anothers’ success in dealing with the infection rates within the states.”
The metrics by which each state can time their reopenings vary and they depend on the procurement of highly sought-after medical resources. Businesses will need to be able to protect their employees when they return and hospitals will need to be prepared for a second wave of patients, Cuomo has said.
There had been some preliminary discussion about sharing resources like tests, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.
New Jersey officials last month said that a Rutgers University-developed saliva test that’s been held out as a possible “gold standard” for mass testing will be prioritized for New Jersey residents first. Cuomo — who said he secured capacity for 40,000 combined diagnostic and antibody tests a day from Trump — hasn’t given any specifics on the extent to which his state health department will share its antibody test with neighbors.
Officials from the offices of several governors stressed that the pact is nonbinding, more of a brainstorming vehicle than anything.
That sort of informal communication is something states are already doing with or without a partnership announcement, said a spokesperson for Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, who has not joined the Northeast coalition despite fluid borders with both New York and Massachusetts.
“When looking at a regional restart strategy, it’s important to recognize Vermont took more aggressive mitigation measures than some of our surrounding states and has seen a positive impact from those measures,” Scott’s communications director Rebecca Kelley said in an email. “Because there is such a variance in the restrictions in place, it is difficult to align regional reopenings. But the Governor agrees it is critical to communicate as a region and Vermont has been doing so.”
Informal agreements among states happen all the time, said Bridget Fahey, a Sharswood Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Cary Law School who researches federalism. The high visibility of the recent binge of alliance-building is perhaps more telling than their actual content, she said. That doesn’t mean they don’t serve a useful purpose — for example, they can be effective in persuading residents that their individual governor isn’t the only one making controversial public health decisions.
But they have also served as a messaging mechanism, because states can rarely enter into a binding agreement without federal approval, said Yoo, the former Bush official.
“If they actually required states to do something, they would be an unconstitutional compact,” he said. “They always have more of a symbolic aspect to them.”
And there might even be another bit of symbolism at work as well, or so Yoo suggested.
“I don’t think the symbolism was pressuring the federal government,” he said. “It was more like giving the middle finger to the federal government.”
Sam Sutton, Shia Kapos, Matt Dixon and Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.