States’ authority in pandemic shows issues in weak federal control

By Lilly Price | Reporter

It seems that almost in the same breath, President Trump has claimed his urgency to stop the spread of the coronavirus, all while bemoaning the economic state our country will fall into if we don’t actively look toward reopening commerce. While Trump has asserted that he has total control over when businesses will reopen, he announced last Thursday that part of his administration’s plan is to give that authority on when to reopen the economy back to state governors. This seems to me like one of the greatest oversights to be made during this entire pandemic. If we’ve learned anything over the past month and a half, it’s that every state handles a disease outbreak differently, and some responses have put millions of peoples’ lives in grave danger, while some have helped curb the spread of infection with prompt and sensible policies.

Mike DeWine, the Republican governor of Ohio, was the first to call for statewide public school closures on March 12, even though Ohio hadn’t faced a serious outbreak at that time. It was this swift move by DeWine that urged other governors to follow suit with school closures.

On the other hand, those who have been slow to get on board with new regulations have watched the damage done, through high numbers of infections and deaths in their states. Ron Santis, the Republican governor of Florida, avoided closing beaches before and after the deluge of Spring Break travelers, who then dispersed to all over the country, a breeding ground for feeding the flames of an outbreak. Not only that, Santis dug in his heels about issuing a stay at home order until April 1, weeks after most states had been following the procedure. This wide disparity in response is unsettling to say the least.

It seems that our safety as American citizens depends more on what state we live in, and that shouldn’t be the case. Some might claim that because America is such a big country and the virus has affected places in different ways, state leadership should be allowed to customize a plan that works in context with how the coronavirus is affecting the area. But because this deadly virus spreads so easily, and interstate travel is so common in 2020, it only makes sense that everyone operates under the same set of rules, because when they don’t, disaster tends to strike.

This whole debacle brings up an interesting conversation about states’ rights. In a time of hysteria, who really has control, the executive or state leaders? When I first started learning about U.S. government, the states’ rights side made a lot of sense to me. For a new country trying to establish itself from an oppressive regime, limited government was logical. Citizens having access to their state representatives was the easiest way for them to actually participate in government, and because the country was small, fears of disunity hadn’t risen up yet. But as we travel through history, we see that states’ rights can be a convenient guise for each state to craft its own priorities, values, and mandates, even when those priorities are in complete opposition to one another. It was the bitter battle over slavery that nearly tore the country apart because coalitions of states wanted the authority to maintain a lifestyle that was wrong.

Another instance of strife born out of states’ rights is gay marriage. While Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2004, it wasn’t until over a decade later that the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional. Without such a ruling, it’s likely that many states would still have same-sex marriage banned.

While I agree with strong states’ rights conceptually, in reality it often can cause a discordant looking nation. I feel that same sense of discordance in the midst of this pandemic. While there are many situations where a strong and demanding executive branch is unnecessary, now is not that time. Now is the time for the federal government to lay out a plan to combat the coronavirus in a way that brings all states under the same guidelines. Without confusion over which states follow which rules, together we’ll come closer to ending the coronavirus pandemic.