Governors across the country are grappling with an alarming surge of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, so far putting forward a fractured response.
Despite the escalating public health crisis, many governors have taken only modest actions; most states still allow major sources of spread such as bars and indoor restaurants to remain open.
President Trump on Friday touted progress on a vaccine but did not announce any major new steps aimed at slowing the spread of the virus in the short term, and he is leaving most of those decisions to states.
Experts are urging governors to impose stronger measures such as closing bars and gyms, prohibiting indoor dining, mandating masks, and advising people to limit in-person gatherings.
“There are many very troubling warning signs in outbreaks across the U.S.,” said Anita Cicero, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “I do feel that more immediate action is required.”
While most state actions have been relatively minor, stricter rules are starting to pop up, particularly from states with Democratic officials, underscoring the red versus blue divide on public health measures reminiscent of earlier this year.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) on Friday instructed residents to stay home except for essential business, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) issued a similar advisory. More such orders could be coming as the situation worsens.
Experts for the most part are not calling for a return to full-scale lockdowns, saying much has been learned since the spring about how the virus spreads, and there is little reason to stop low-risk activities such as curbside pickup from a store.
But significant sources of spread such as bars, indoor restaurants and gyms should be closed in hard-hit areas, they said.
Many states have not taken those steps, despite the ever-mounting case counts.
The country is now recording an unprecedented 150,000 new cases every day, with hospitalizations at record levels of more than 60,000 and deaths at around 1,000 per day and starting to rise. Hospitals in some areas are reaching capacity and becoming overwhelmed.
These trends show no signs of slowing as temperatures get colder and more activity moves indoors.
Just 13 states have closed their bars, according to a tracker from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
But there’s bipartisan pressure for states to do more.
A Washington Post op-ed on Wednesday — authored by Richard Danzig, Navy secretary under former President Clinton; James Lawler, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Nebraska; and Tom Bossert, a former homeland security adviser to President Trump — called on states to take three specific actions: limit indoor gatherings to no more than 10 people, close indoor restaurants and bars, and require masks in public.
The authors said those steps should be taken in any region where there are more than 20 new cases per 100,000 people per day. Forty states are already above that threshold, according to the COVID Exit Strategy tracking site.
Still, governors in some of the hardest-hit states have resisted actions such as statewide mask mandates and bar closures.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) has long opposed a statewide mask mandate, but amid the worsening outbreak, she issued an order last week requiring masks at businesses such as barbershops and at large gatherings.
At the same time, she emphasized that she did not want to close businesses.
“You can still eat in a restaurant, you can still go to a movie and work out at a gym, and in many states you can’t do that,” she said at a press conference on Tuesday. “Iowa is open for business, and we intend to keep it that way.”
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) struck a similar note in an address on Thursday.
“We’re trying to open things up but to do it in a safe, responsible way,” he said. “We’re not going to shut down businesses. We’re not going to have long term mandates with no end in sight.”
On Capitol Hill, congressional leaders have been deadlocked over a new round of economic aid, which could provide relief for businesses such as bars and restaurants and allow them to temporarily close to slow the spread of the virus without taking a major financial hit.
“There needs to be a policy lever to help support and maintain those small businesses,” said Preeti Malani, chief health officer and professor of medicine at the University of Michigan.
In New York City, bars and restaurants are still open, with a new 10 p.m. curfew. But the prospect of schools closing has sparked criticism about the city’s priorities.
“If NYC closes schools and continues to allow indoor dining our priorities are totally backwards,” tweeted New York City Council member Mark Levine.
Malani said schools have been a “good-news situation” and have not been a significant source of transmission.
“If the balance is between keeping the bars open and keeping the schools open, that’s an easy decision in my mind,” she said.
Celine Gounder, a coronavirus adviser to President-elect Joe Biden, made a similar point on Friday.
“Some of those higher-risk places are, for example, restaurants, bars and gyms, whereas schools are not zero risk, but they’re much much lower risk, and they’re an essential service really,” she told CNBC. “So I think we need to close only those things that really are contributing to the spread and really try to let as much as possible remain open, like schools, if they’re not contributing to spread.”
Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said at an event hosted by the think tank Chatham House on Thursday that the news that Pfizer’s vaccine candidate was more than 90 percent effective in an interim analysis provides something of a light at the end of the tunnel.
That promising news, he said, should encourage people to take some tough steps for a few months until the vaccine is widely available.
“Ever since it became clear a few days ago that we have a really quite effective vaccine getting ready to deploy, [the message] is rather than ‘Hey. Don’t worry. You’re OK,’ it’s ‘Don’t stop shooting. The cavalry is coming. But don’t put your weapons down. You better keep fighting because they’re not here yet,'” Fauci said.