In Blue States, Reopening Orders Cause Tensions with Localities and Activist Groups

Political debates on when states should reopen their economies in the wake of the COVID-19 have generally broken down along left and right divides. Many conservative politicians and commentators have complained about the damage that restricting citizen movements to stop the spread of the disease has caused to their local economies. For example, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick argued that efforts to keep more Americans at home were causing an “economic collapse” and that the United States needed to make an “exchange” of human lives for economic development by ending lockdown measures and letting businesses open up.

Other conservative arguments have focused on the supposedly authoritarian nature of the measures. President Donald Trump has repeatedly supported ending lockdown measures by framing the issue as a civil liberties crisis. On April 17th, he went so far as to tweet support of protestors across states including Minnesota and Virginia who have flouted social distancing guidelines based on the belief that these measures violated their rights.

In response, Democratic leaders have pushed back against efforts by Republicans to move towards a quick reopening of the economy as being unsafe. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi even went as far as to criticize one President Trump’s plans to restart the economy as likely to cause “further death and economic disaster”. This conflict has even played out within state governments such as in the case of Republican governor Larry Hogan of Maryland choosing to allow limited reopening of retail, haircuts, and worship services. Senate President and Democrat Senate President Bill Ferguson pointed out that the order leaves “outstanding questions” and the Democratic mayor of Baltimore, Jack Young argued that the order was dangerous.

However, states with liberal majorities are facing their own issues with how to reopen the economy. In Virginia, where the Democrats control both houses of the legislature, Democratic Governor Ralph Northam outlined plans for businesses to reopen across the state to take effect on May 15.This announcement met with stiff resistance from local authorities from Northern Virginia. These leaders, representing the city of Alexandria and the counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William, expressed concerns that their communities would not be ready to open at that schedule, because they are still facing rising numbers of cases. Interestingly, Northern Virginia is one of the regions of Virginia that had been most supportive of Governor Northam during his election. The Governor also received criticism from organizations representing racial minorities. The Fairfax County NAACP issued a statement arguing that Virginia was “sacrificing” people of color for the economy by opening up, since racial minorities make a disproportionate percentage of people suffering from the virus. Similarly, the director of the Legal Aide Justice Center, an organization focused on racial justice advocacy, wrote an opinion piece calling the policy “reckless and cruel” because reopening would expose many people of color to the virus. As with the pushback from Northern Virginia local governments, these criticisms show that Northam has created a fracture in his winning coalition, since many racial minorities, including 91% of African-American women voters in Virginia, supported his election in 2017.

Virginia’s predicament could be replicated in other states as more liberal state governments feel economic pressures to reopen. In New York, where the Democratic Party holds veto-proof supermajorities in houses of the legislature, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo initially appeared as a fierce proponent of lockdown measures and the state has closed down all non-essential businesses starting on March 20th . But recently, the governor has floated the idea of reopening some regions of the state as early as May 15. In Washington, Governor Jay Inslee is allowing for counties to apply to the state government to reopen based on a specific set of factors which would indicate that the spread of the disease is slowing down. It remains to be seen if Democratic leadership in these states will see their support waver as vulnerable groups and local governments protest at the prospect of potentially facing more dangers of contracting the disease in their communities.

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Stephen D'Alessio

Stephen D'Alessio

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Stephen D’Alessio is a skilled researcher, group facilitator, and communicator currently working in the Washington, D.C. area.