Trump wants to ease coronavirus restrictions but states have rules too

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has said he wants to curtail the strict social distancing guidelines his administration put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic because of the potential impact on the U.S. economy. 

But Trump is not the only executive to take action in the hope of "flattening the curve," the term medical experts use to describe a slow and steady rise in the number of cases of COVID-19 rather than a sharp spike that could overwhelm the nation's healthcare system. 

As the president weighs loosening the federal guidance, he does so against a backdrop of governors who have implemented their own statewide – and independent – restrictions, from curfews to lockdowns to sweeping school and business closures.

“We’re going to be opening relatively soon,” Trump said during a Fox News town hall Tuesday. “I'd love to have it open by Easter ... It's such an important day for other reasons but I'll make an important date for this too. I would love to have the country, opened up and just raring to go by Easter.” 

But does Trump have the authority to revoke or alter that guidance? And what impact would the move have on work-from-home orders signed by state governors?

What is Trump’s guidance?

Trump announced guidelines March 16 aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus. Officials describe the effort as "15 days to bend the curve" of new cases. The guidelines called on Americans to avoid gatherings of 10 or more people and suggested that states with "community transmission" close their schools, bars, restaurants and other businesses.

The guidelines also recommended seniors stay home and avoid contact with other people, that Americans avoid discretionary travel shopping trips and social visits, and that customers use drive-thru, pickup and delivery options instead of eating out.

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The federal guidelines are just that – guidelines. They are not mandatory, but both the president and public health officials have previously said that following them is critically important to slowing the spread of the virus. Many private companies, school districts and medical facilities have been honoring the guidelines. 

Trump wants to ease coronavirus restrictions but states have rules too

Can Trump lift the guidance and how?

Trump has signaled growing impatience with the federal guidelines and their potential impact on the U.S. economy. In a lengthy press conference on Monday, the president shifted his message significantly and argued that the "cure" of the virus shouldn't come at the cost of a massive economic slowdown. He did not say specifically when he will lift the guidelines, but suggested it would be a matter of weeks and not months. 

"Our country's not built to shut down," Trump said Tuesday during the Fox News town hall. "You can destroy a country this way by closing it down." 

The guidelines were already set to expire early next week. 

Because the guidelines are not mandatory, the president has wide latitude to adjust them as he sees fit. Trump indicated this week that the guidelines could be tailored for different states, with more hard-hit areas facing tougher recommendations while states with few cases potentially returning to normal. While Trump can set the guidelines however he wants, states and private industries are not required to honor them.  

What about state stay-at-home orders? 

States with stay-at-home orders made by their governors could continue those orders,  regardless of whether Trump lifts the federal guidelines. 

As of Tuesday, at least 17 states have stay-at-home orders in place, and at least 10 others have some cities or counties that have issued their own orders. Each state has their own rules in place for how long the orders last. For example, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s stay-at-home order is set until April 6, while some governors have not given an exact date that the order will end.

In addition to stay-at-home orders, several states have closed school for several weeks or even until the end of the school year, such as Virginia and Kansas. Those orders also could stay in place if Trump lifts the federal guidelines.

"We are at war," DeWine said Sunday when announcing his executive order to have Ohioans stay home. "And in a time of war we have to make sacrifices."

If Trump changes the federal guidance, would that affect states?

The country's public health law is a patchwork of responsibilities divided up between the federal and state governments, but typically states are in control of "police powers," according to Professor Glenn Cohen, faculty director for the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology & Bioethics at Harvard Law School. Some states even delegate those powers to individual localities. 

But if Trump decides to lift the federal guidance, states like California or New York that have issued stay-at-home orders "may decide to follow suit or not, but typically have significant discretion as to what to do," he said. 

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While legally states remain largely independent of the president and the federal government in regards to these measures, governors and state health officials may face political pressures in defying the federal government's guidelines. 

If Trump changes the guidance while states' stay-at-home orders remain in place, could that help the economy? 

The president and his economic advisers have shown they are eager to roll back the "15 Day to Slow the Spread" initiative as economists warn of a dramatic economic contraction in the months ahead. Investment banking giant Morgan Stanley reported over the weekend the economy could shrink by 30.1% in the second quarter. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has lost more than three years of gains. 

But loosening restrictions too early and resuming public life could lead to tighter crackdown in the future, according to Jay Shambaugh, director of The Hamilton Project and a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution. 

"The whole point is to lock down until you control the virus," Shambaugh said. "Anything you do to kind of erase the gains you're trying to get by controlling the virus, it's not just that it has health consequences, it requires further lockdown later on." 

Trump has suggested parts of the country where there hasn't been a large outbreak could resume normal activities in the coming weeks, while New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has floated the idea that younger, healthier people could return to work while more at-risk populations remain at home. 

Shambaugh argues the question is not when the U.S. should begin lifting restrictions in an effort to revive the economy. The question instead should be to public health officials, asking what the conditions are in which the country could return to work – whether that's a matter of increasing testing production, quarantining or contact tracing like South Korea implemented in its effort to combat the spread of coronavirus. 

Should the president ease the federal guidelines, while some states keep schools, restaurants and businesses closed, it may not revive the economy as much as it makes people take the restrictions less seriously, Shambaugh added.

"The economic pain is not something we can avoid simply by relaxing restrictions," he said. "Millions of people have lost their jobs already. That has an impact on the economy regardless of if we try to open things up immediately."

Health officials have stressed social distancing is a key part of stemming the spread of the virus to ensure hospitals are not overwhelmed amid medical supply shortages, pointing to Italy's staggering death toll as a warning of what could happen if a country is unprepared. 

Regardless of whether Trump reopens American business, the economic repercussions are already underway. Aside from the equity market wealth that has already been lost and the subsequent expected cutback in consumption over the next 12 months, the contractions in Europe, China and other places will also affect U.S. economy, according to Shambaugh. 

"At this point, there is just a massive sudden stop of finance flowing through emerging markets and that's going to cause a real kind of pain and chaos in a lot of emerging market economies and that also spills back over to the United States," he said.

What are the political ramifications of Trump and the states being on different pages? 

Under the U.S. Constitution, governors can issue their own policies to combat the coronavirus pandemic due to a provision called police powers that applies to states.

The law allows governors to issue orders to protect their citizens in emergencies, including those dealing with public health. Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said that if the federal government tried to step in and forbid governors from dealing with their problems within the boundaries, the issue could end up at the Supreme Court.

“The Supreme Court would say that the federal government was commandeering the states, which is something the court has specifically rejected,” Baker said. “Within the constitutional definition of police powers, the states are doing exactly what they are properly doing.”

Although it will not be a legal issue, it could cause widespread confusion across the nation if Trump does end a federal recommendation of a stay-at-home order but does not note exceptions for local orders.

Baker said the “public would be rightly, rightly confused.”

“It will introduce a kind of confusion and chaos, which would be really quite dangerous,” he said.

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