The coronavirus knows no party affiliation, but the response to the U.S. epidemic is increasingly splitting along political lines.
In states with Democratic governors, Republicans are pushing to lift restrictions and reopen the economy while crying foul at gubernatorial executive orders. The opposite is occurring in states with GOP governors, who find themselves under mounting pressure from Democrats to enact shutdowns.
The players on what might be called Team Shutdown and Team Reopen share at least one key trait: Both are convinced the science is on their side.
“Everything is so polarized, and by the way, that’s how you know none of this has very much to do with public health, that it splits exactly on party lines,” said Phil Kerpen, president of the free-market advocacy group American Commitment. “I think a genuine public-health measure would not split that way. So there’s a lot of virtue signaling and tribalism at play with all of these things.”
For months, the focus was on the Democratic governors of New Jersey, New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where caseloads were the highest, but since then the case counts and media attention have shifted to the Sun Belt, where Florida, Texas, California and Arizona.
In California, Republican lawmakers erupted when Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom pulled back Monday on the reopening, shutting down on restaurants, bars and theaters statewide while ordering the 30 counties on the COVID-19 monitoring list to shutter gyms, churches and even protests.
Four congressmen and state legislators representing Northern California said that it was important to “act responsibly in order to suppress the virus and protect our community,” but that business and church reopenings were not to blame for the recent surge in cases.
“There is no justification for this approach. There is no evidence that any of these activities are causing an increase in Covid-19 cases,” said the letter headed by Rep. Doug LaMalfa, California Republican.
Currently on the shutdown hot seat are Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who face rising calls from state Democrats to declare shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders as case counts rise in the Sun Belt.
After Florida reported over the weekend a one-day record of 15,000 positive test results, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was among the Democrats who unloaded on the governor, saying his “disastrous response and rushed reopening is already overwhelming our hospitals and is threatening to set back Florida’s long-term economic and physical health.”
Mr. Abbott, meanwhile, has faced rising calls from Democrats led by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to issue a shutdown order — or allow counties to do so — as well as a demand last week from former Rep. Beto O’Rourke to resign.
“We opened the government here in Texas up too quickly. That was May 1. We had not followed the CDC guidelines,” Ms. Jackson Lee said on MSNBC.
Mr. Abbott has agreed to some restrictions, including a mask-wearing mandate in the hardest-hit counties, but former Attorney General Eric H. Holder singled him out last week, accusing him and other Republican governors of “political gutlessness” for the “rush to reopen.”
“Why did Governors in Arizona, Texas and Florida delay closing down, rush to reopen & politicize mask use? Idiocy & political gutlessness,” Mr. Holder tweeted. “Combined with Trump ineptitude this has led to unnecessary suffering that will only get worse over the next few weeks.”
Mr. Abbott replied: “Eric — why is Texas tied for the lowest death rate of the 27 most affected states? Why have more Texans recovered from COVID than any other state & twice the number of New Yorkers? Why is CA spiking more than TX even though it shut down harder & longer than TX?”
While Democrats have accused the Republican governors of reopening too quickly, Dr. Scott Atlas, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and formerly with the Stanford University Medical Center, downplayed the importance of such policies.
“When you really look closely at these so-called reopening policies, whether it’s in Georgia or Florida or Texas, we didn’t really see a big correlation of cases or hospitalizations from that,” Dr. Atlas said on Fox News. “That’s really not true, that’s sort of sloppy thinking. We have to look really closely at why these things are happening.”
He added in the Friday interview, “by the way, California didn’t really reopen, yet they have cases going up. Why is that? That’s because these cases don’t really correlate to that.”
Indeed, politicos have noted that Democrats conveniently forget that California ranks with the Republican-led Sun Belt states in spiking coronavirus cases.
As columnist Joseph Nocera said in Friday op-ed in Bloomberg News: “Why isn’t California criticized like Florida on COVID-19?”
“Virtually everything you can say about Texas, Florida and Arizona can also be said about California, starting with the shape of its COVID curve, which climbs gradually until mid-June and then explodes,” said Mr. Nocera. “It took almost two months for California to record its first 100,000 positive cases; it took less than three weeks to record its most recent 100,000.”
He called the answer “pretty obvious,” saying that “California is a Democratic state. Newsom is a Democratic governor. Bringing up California’s pandemic woes punctures the critics’ narrative that Republican mismanagement is the reason for the scary surge in infections.”
A Gallup poll released Tuesday showed that Republican governors have seen an approval-rating dip in their handling of the coronavirus crisis as the spikes hit mainly red states, while Democratic governors have seen their approval ratings hold steady.
That may be in part because the red-hot center of the COVID-19 debate has largely shifted away from Democratic governors in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Republican state legislatures have challenged the coronavirus restrictions imposed by Democratic governors.
Pennsylvania’s case counts peaked in April, but House Republicans passed two bills Tuesday to strip some of the emergency powers wielded by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf with proposals to invest greater authority with county governments on business closures and give lawmakers 21 days to overturn disaster declarations.
Where Republicans lack the legislative majorities to challenge Democratic executive orders, conservative legal foundations have stepped in.
The Pacific Legal Institute and San Francisco attorney Harmeet K. Dhillon repeatedly has challenged Mr. Newsom’s restrictions on church gatherings, while the Freedom Foundation has sued to overturn Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s mask order.
The real trouble for Republican governors may come when they inflame both sides, as Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey did last week by rolling back the reopening on restaurants and gyms. Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema blasted him anyway for his “repeated delayed reaction to the greatest health crisis of our lives.”
“[N]w that he’s shut down parts of our economy again, he’s losing the support of a lot of Republicans — and the most important kind of Republicans he’ll need for funding a future campaign: business leaders and business-owning Republicans,” KTAR News columnist Jim Sharpe said in a July 1 column. “So the Dems are down on Ducey and, now, he’s facing Republican rejection.”