Amidst all of the focus on the federal government government and its response to the coronavirus pandemic, many people have forgotten that, in our system of government, it is the states that have the power to make the truly important decisions. They’re about to be reminded about that.
The response to COVID-19 has actually been a good illustration of how America is supposed to work — and why we’re called the United States in the first place. The federal government can offer guidance, and can coordinate how the national stockpiles of ventilators and masks and hospital gowns are distributed among the states according to need and forecasts, but it is the states, each a separate sovereign government with a separate sphere of responsibility, that have made the really big decisions about how to deal with the scourge of COVID-19.
States can, and do, take different approaches to issues — which is why Justice Brandeis long ago described states as the “laboratories of democracy.” In Ohio, we’ve been under a state-ordered lockdown decree for weeks, and most states have similar lockdown orders, but each of the orders varies in terms of who may work, who is considered essential, and what businesses may operate. Notably, a number of states, primarily in the middle swath of the United States, have not issued lockdown orders at all. (And, in case you’re curious, those states for the most part have low rates of COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 related deaths, according to the New York Times state tracking tool.)
I say above that we’re going to see a real reminder of the importance of state decision-making very soon because we’re rapidly approaching the point where the states that have been shut down are going to be deciding when, and how, to get back to work. On Friday, for example, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he expects to issue an executive order on reopening businesses in this coming week. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine hasn’t given a deadline, but has said he also is working on an order to reopen the state for business. We can expect many other states whose statistics are at the low end of the coronavirus incidence rate list to also be looking to get back to normal, and probably sooner rather than later.
Having a state-centric approach is unnerving to some people, who think centralized decision-making is by definition better decision-making. Having the states act as “laboratories of democracy” in deciding how to reopen after a pandemic seems like the right approach to me, however. The United States is a big country, and conditions differ significantly from state to state, in ways that are directly relevant to dealing with shutdown orders and pandemics. Some states are rural, some are industrial. Some states are densely populated, and some are so wide open it’s breathtaking. It makes no sense that Wyoming, say, should be on the same timetable as New York or subject to the same requirements as New York. In reality, governors and state officials know their states far better than federal officials ever could, and they can and will make decisions that are tailored to the needs of their specific constituents.
We should all pay attention, because we’re getting a real-life, real-time civics lesson — and the lessons will continue in the coming days and weeks. If the national news media is smart, they’ll start paying a little more attention to the different states and how those state officials are deciding how to restart things.