Battle Over Coronavirus Rules, Reopenings Increasingly Partisan, Bitter

May 15, 2020by Melissa Etehad, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
Michigan State Police look on during the a protest rally against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's order to stay home during COVID-19 pandemic in Lansing, Mich. on Thursday, May 14, 2020. (Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

Urged on by President Donald Trump, Republican officials in several swing states, including Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, are ramping up pressure on Democratic governors to move faster on reopening their economies, despite experts’ warnings of a surge in infections and deaths.

The mounting pressure comes as the number of jobless Americans continues to grow across the nation. Nearly 3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, according to new figures released Thursday by the Labor Department, bringing the total number of claims to 36 million since the coronavirus outbreak began.

Meanwhile, the death toll from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, continues to climb. More than 85,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. And more than 1.4 million people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the university reports.

The battle over stay-at-home orders and the pace of allowing businesses to reopen has taken an increasingly partisan bent.

In Pennsylvania, the Democratic governor has called out Republican leaders flouting his restrictions as cowards. In Wisconsin, the state Supreme Court took Republicans’ side in throwing out the Democratic governor’s stay-at-home order. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer faced armed protesters again Thursday at the state capitol; the Democrat — who is on the list of potential vice presidential picks for presumptive nominee Joe Biden — has faced sharp criticism from GOP legislators as well as Trump. And in Texas, the attorney general has threatened Democratic officials whose city’s restrictions are more stringent than those put in place by the Republican governor.

Health experts have warned that it’s dangerous to fully reopen before there is widespread testing and contract tracing.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, whose state has lost more than 4,200 people from COVID-19, has faced growing resistance from Republican legislators as well as county commissioners in the central and eastern part of the state.

“We’re trying to get things moving in a safe and responsible manner because this thing is turning into a pressure cooker,” said Republican state Rep. Dan Moul from conservative Adams County. “This thing is going to blow up if (Wolf) doesn’t make a move soon.”

Some counties have threatened to defy Wolf’s directives. The governor’s plan reopens the state in phases. More than half of the counties in the state have already started to reopen, Wolf said in a phone interview with WGAL News on Thursday.

Thirteen more are slated to be under Wolf’s “yellow” phase by Friday, which means child care centers can reopen and retail stores can resume operations, but under strict social distancing guidelines. Large gatherings of more than 25 people are still prohibited in those “yellow” phase counties, and gyms, hair salons and theaters must remain closed.

The rest of the state, however, remains under Wolf’s “red” phase, in which stay-at-home orders are still in place, large gatherings prohibited and restaurants and bars only permitted to do carry-out and delivery.

“We’re all fighting this war together. We can’t run up the white flag,” Wolf told WGAL News on Thursday. “We have got to fight this to the end and make sure that we’re going everything we can to keep people safe. Again, I don’t think that the Commonwealth has been unreasonable.”

Wolf has threatened to punish counties that vowed to reopen despite his orders by threatening to withhold coronavirus aid and that business owners that reopen would risk losing their licenses to operate.

Trump, who had tweeted Monday that Pennsylvanians “want their freedom now,” took a tour at a medical supply facility near Allentown on Thursday. He spoke about ramping up production on PPE equipment. Images showed him surrounded by people wearing masks. The president has said he will not wear one, explaining “it’s not for me.”

“We have to get your governor of Pennsylvania to start opening up a little bit,” Trump said during the tour.

In Michigan, a couple hundred people, many of them armed, took to the state capitol Thursday to protest Whitmer’s stay-at-home order.

Whitmer, who was sued last week by the GOP-controlled state House and Senate last week over claims that she had overstepped her authority by extending the state’s stay-at-home orders, continues to urge people to abide by social distancing guidelines.

“I don’t particularly want to see people congregating, period. We know that contributes to spread,” Whitmer said Wednesday. “But if people are going to come down and demonstrate, do it in a responsible way. That’s what we ask.”

She said lives have been saved because of the state’s stay-at-home order, which is effective through May 28.

“If we had not taken the action that we did, more people would have died and the disease would have spread much further than it did,” Whitmer said.

In Wisconsin on Wednesday, the conservative-majority state Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Tony Evers’ administration had overstepped its authority when it shut down nonessential businesses through May in order to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The 5-4 decision, which Trump called a “win,” means Evers will have to work with the Republican-controlled Legislature to come up with a new plan.

“Its Democrat Governor was forced by the courts to let the State Open. The people want to get on with their lives. The place is bustling!” Trump tweeted Thursday morning.

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©2020 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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