Republican governors were slower to implement social distancing restrictions to combat the spread of the new coronavirus and these delays are expected to result in “significant” consequences, according to a study by researchers at the University of Washington.
This article first appeared in Salon.
President Donald Trump spent much of January, February and early March downplaying the threat posed by the coronavirus, which resulted in a stark partisan split among Republicans and Democrats on social distancing and public health warnings. That split appears to have extended to the top levels of government as some Republican governors have rejected calls to shut down non-essential businesses to contain the virus.
The University of Washington study found that states with Republican governors and states with “more Trump supporters” were “slower to adopt social distancing policies” by an average of nearly three days than their blue-state counterparts.
“Our findings are unambiguous: political variables are the strongest predictor of the early adoption of social distancing policies,” the researchers wrote. “All else equal, states with Republican governors and Republican electorates delayed each social distancing measure by an average of 2.70 days … a far larger effect than any other factor, including state income per capita, the percentage of neighboring states with mandates, or even confirmed cases in each state.”
Though the differences appear relatively short, the researchers warned that “these delays are likely to produce significant, on-going harm to public health.”
The researchers tied the delayed actions to “cues” from Trump, who “strongly signaled … that the coronavirus was an exaggerated threat or even a hoax — a position that was magnified and reinforced by Republican-leaning media outlets.”
The study’s authors argued that “partisans of any stripe tend to minimize failures by their own party leaders and exaggerate failures by the opposing party,” pointing out that Republicans “were more concerned about Ebola during Obama’s presidency than they were about COVID-19 under Trump.”
University of Washington professor Christopher Adolph, one of the study’s authors, told Newsweek that a combination of “voter skepticism and presidential opposition” combined to make it “much harder” for Republicans to act sooner.
Many of these governors were caught in a whirlwind of Trump’s rhetoric. The president declared a national emergency after initially downplaying the threat for months. He then argued that the economic pain caused by the lockdowns was worse than the deadly virus itself and called to lift restrictions and pack churches by Easter Sunday. He backed off that timeline this week and announced that he would extend federal guidance urging people to stay home until at least April 30, citing models projecting that as many as 2.2 million Americans would die without sustained intervention.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican with close ties to Trump, came under fire after he was slow to respond to images of packed beaches and hordes of spring break revelers while other states imposed lockdowns.
“Coronavirus is killing us in Florida,” the Miami Herald editorial board warned in a scathing editorial aimed at DeSantis. “Act like you give a damn.”
The Tampa Bay Times found that 35 other governors were more proactive in shuttering non-essential businesses, while DeSantis he waited for local officials and businesses to craft their own policies.
DeSantis still has not enacted a statewide stay-at-home policy though he signed an order on Monday advising residents of southeast Florida, the state’s most densely populated region, to stay inside.
The delays have left big-city mayors pleading for their red-state governors to do more.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who himself tested positive for the virus, called for the governor to impose a statewide lockdown because he’s convinced “thousands of people in my community have it” but don’t know they’re infected.
“Where New York is today may be where Miami is tomorrow,” Suarez told Business Insider. “It can become apocalyptic.”
Texas has also resisted pressure to implement a statewide lockdown even though Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he shut his city down because the evidence was “so overwhelming that you just couldn’t ignore that.”
“I don’t know what information the governor may have received or been given, but based on the information and the facts and the strong recommendation being made by the medical community in a unanimous way, to not impose a stay-at-home order I think would have been going against the facts and the advice and the science,” he told Business Insider.
While DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott mirror Trump’s earlier rhetoric claiming that the economic damage from lockdowns could be worse than the skyrocketing number of deaths, the mayors echoed the warnings of Trump’s own top health experts.
“We all are deeply concerned and [that’s] why we’ve been raising the alert in all metro areas and in all states. No state, no metro area will be spared,” Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, told NBC News. “The sooner we react, and the sooner the states and metro areas react and ensure that they’ve put in full mitigation, at the same time understanding exactly what their hospital needs, then we’ll be able to move forward together and protect the most Americans.”