One Governor’s Actions Highlight the Strengths — and Shortcomings — of State-Led Interventions

By: - March 27, 2020 12:00 am

A man leaves an Atlanta restaurant with takeout last week. John Bazemore / The Associated Press

Editor’s note: This story was updated 3/27 to correct a reference to Dr. Melanie Thompson’s area of medical specialization.

Read Stateline coverage of the latest state action on coronavirus.

ATLANTA — Shortly after the Georgia General Assembly suspended its legislative session because of COVID-19, state lawmakers convened for a rare one-day special session. By the time they gathered March 16, the disease had spread throughout the state. There were 121 cases confirmed, the eighth-most in the country.

The legislature had a historic purpose. With bipartisan support, lawmakers voted to give first-term Republican Gov. Brian Kemp greater power than any other chief executive in the state’s history. They gave Kemp the authority to suspend laws, take operational control of civil forces and order evacuations.

In the following days, Kemp closed schools and limited the size of public gatherings. He also secured medical supplies for hospitals, turned a state park into a quarantine site and opened COVID-19 testing sites.

But in a business-friendly state where many residents are wary of activist government, Kemp was circumspect with his new authority compared to his counterparts in other states.

He urged people to pick up food at local eateries instead of shuttering restaurants and used his bully pulpit to preach social distancing instead of ordering all Georgians to shelter in place. He suspended a few minor regulations — but took no drastic action.

“If you overreach, people are going to rebel on you, basically, and not heed the warnings you’re giving to them,” Kemp told a local radio station two days after the state legislature approved the special powers. “And if you don’t do too much, it creates big problems.” (Kemp’s office did not respond to an interview request from Stateline.)

That day, 197 cases were confirmed in Georgia, plus four deaths.

Kemp’s reluctance to use the powers granted to him, and the resulting confusion and rebellion among the state’s local officials, illustrates the shortcomings of the country’s federalist approach to the outbreak. In the absence of clear direction from the federal government, each state, county, city and town has been left to go its own way.

The disparities are likely to grow if President Donald Trump follows through on his pronouncement that he wants the country “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” despite expert health warnings that it would be dangerous and premature to do so.

Governors in at least 20 states — from Democrats like California’s Gavin Newsom and Louisiana’s John Bel Edwards, to Republicans like West Virginia’s Jim Justice and Indiana’s Eric Holcomb — have ordered residents statewide to stay at home.

Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered every hospital to add beds, while Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine pushed to postpone the state’s primary.

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