Biden’s Covid fight meets a big test: Red-state politics

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Biden will be able to work with governors if he has open communication, clear and consistent messaging, and a willingness to recommend, not impose, rules on states, said Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who serves as vice chair of the National Governors Association.

The Biden White House “can handle [masking] well, simply by setting the right example, by communicating the importance of it, urging the governors to adopt the right policies, and then they can do it in their federal institutions,” Hutchinson said in an interview. If Biden strikes that balance — guidance while respecting states’ autonomy — “every governor will respect that leadership,” Hutchinson added.

Biden hasn’t said he’d institute a national mandate, and he probably doesn’t have that power. But on the first day of his presidency he is issuing a 100-day challenge, encouraging Americans to mask up. And he will issue an executive order requiring masks on federal property and on interstate transportation. Federal employees and contractors will also have to wear them.

“We will focus on what the science tells us works in terms of mitigating the spread of the disease,” Jeff Zients, who will lead the White House’s coronavirus response, told reporters Tuesday evening. “Testing, masking and other proven public health measures.”

There are already signs that some red-state governors are changing their minds about how to stem the pandemic. Right after Biden won in November, most of the 16 GOP governors who at the time didn’t have mask mandates vowed to keep resisting. But within a week or two, over half a dozen switched or tightened their restrictions. Others have allowed local officials to impose mask orders, even if the state refrained. Most of the mandates remain in effect.

Not everyone will be on board. This week, Gov. Doug Burgum, a North Dakota Republican, let a statewide mask mandate imposed after the election lapse along with occupancy restrictions on restaurants. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, rolled back economic restrictions imposed by his Democratic predecessor as soon as he took office this month and said he would lift the statewide mask mandate after some of the most vulnerable populations are vaccinated — which runs counter to what public health officials advise. But he also said he would continue to wear a mask, to set an example, even if he doesn’t mandate them.

Still, wearing masks and social distancing are the best steps to fight the virus, while the vaccination program expands. Biden has said he doesn’t want a nationwide shutdown. And it’s abundantly clear that the public doesn’t either.

“It would be tough to see major new restrictions,” Mississippi’s top health officer Thomas Dobbs emailed. “I anticipate we would continue with the county-by-county mask mandates and restrictions based on case rates. We would benefit greatly by more stringent restrictions on social events if we see a later resurgence.”

States for the last 10 months have cycled through varying degrees of lockdowns — and governors of both parties are enacting tougher restrictions, or lifting limits that have hampered businesses. Delaware bars and restaurants this month no longer have a 10 p.m. curfew. And in Ohio, the state’s 10 p.m. curfew was extended until Jan. 23.

Incentives to states — like giving more federal dollars to those that follow certain public health practices — works better than federal orders, said Trish Riley, executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy. That practice has worked in the past to nudge states on things like state drinking ages and highway safety. The public health emergency gives Biden “a lot of running room” but rewarding rather than punishing is usually better if Biden wants to collaborate with governors, she said.

The collaboration has already started. NGA has coordinated regular calls between the transition team and governors, according to a source familiar.

“They need us and we need them,” said Hutchinson, who said there’s been at least two calls on the coronavirus, vaccine distribution and Biden’s stimulus plan.

Some of the early state-Biden conversations have focused on vaccines. That isn’t a red-blue split. All states want more vaccines, with more predictability about supplies. But it’s a chance to build partnerships and trust. Gordon Larsen, a senior adviser for federal affairs for Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who took office this month, said the state has had a few calls with the Biden transition’s intergovernmental affairs team. In December, the transition team sent a survey to states asking for specific information about their level of planning for the vaccine, such as details about their prioritization scheme — which Larsen called a “useful exercise.”

And incoming CDC director Rochelle Walensky said on a webcast with the Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday, “The federal government will step in on a state by state level” and ask, “What is the help you need.”

Even some of the governors who have followed Trump’s lead have signaled openness to working with Biden.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt — who is resisting a statewide mask mandate and who contracted coronavirus himself — wants Biden to prioritize states that are doing well in distributing their vaccines, though other governors want the shots allocated based on population. “The governor has publicly said [since very shortly after the election] that he’ll work with President-Elect Biden when he takes office on the 20th to support Oklahomans just like he would any other president,” Stitt spokesperson Charlie Hannema said in an email.

Hemi Tewarson, who ran health programming for the NGA until she joined the Duke-Margolis health policy center last year, said transparency, including frankness about all aspects of vaccine supply, will be crucial in building trust. ”A lot of communication with the new administration is going to be key,” she said. “I know they’re very committed to that — to really understand what are really the struggles, and where can the federal government be helpful, and really listening.”

Understanding all the variations and needs in each state will “take some serious effort on the Biden administration’s part,” she said. Offering data tools and science-based advice will help.

Governors have been making hard decisions about how much of the economy to open for months now, she said, “but it’s still hard decisions every time.”



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