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April 08, 2020

Federalism Is the Key to End Lockdown

Governors Led Containment and Now They’ll Lead Release

The Lockdown

America’s system of states with a great deal of independence from the federal government has served us well during the pandemic. Most Governors acted quickly to shut down schools, public gatherings, and businesses as the magnitude of the threat became apparent. Note that the areas hit first like the State of Washington already seem to be on the road to containment if not recovery. With hindsight, we’ll say some states acted too quickly or too slowly – but that’s only with hindsight. We’ll also never know whether states which get through this relatively unscathed would have fared worse if they hadn’t shut down. This is the real world and not a case study in a classroom.

States have been able to learn from each other. That’s one of the advantages to having more than one approach to solving a problem, particularly a problem no one in office in the US has ever had to confront.

Even if you approve of the President, it is highly unlikely that he or she would be able to do the right thing (whatever that is) for each area of our huge and diverse country. Vermont doesn’t need special provisions to keep subways running and New York City doesn’t have to make sure the maples get tapped while the sap is still running.

BTW, the federal government has so far not done a good job of keeping national stockpiles of critical items or speeding their manufacture. That is its role – but the governors have coped the best they can, and states are beginning to share supplies as needed.

The great release

Just as it would have been a grave mistake to wait too long to take precautionary measures, it will be a mistake if government attempts to keep individuals and the economy in lockdown. The “economy” is not just some abstraction which makes money for capitalists, it’s the environment of goods and service we all live in. Many of us can shelter in place for a while because the economy was strong and because it can coast for a while and use its surpluses to help those in need. We are also only able to duck exposure because other people are taking risks for us. That is not a “sustainable” situation.

Once we are past peaks which would have overwhelmed our hospitals, first responders, and medical professionals, we must go back to work and makes sure that the essential workers who have been sheltering us have whatever “non-essential” things that we provide. We quarantined to “bend the curve”; and, fingers-crossed, we may be close to having done that in many places. Now is the time to look at where, when, and how the rest of us can get back to doing our share.

The when and how isn’t going to be the same everywhere. That’s why states have a key role. Even in Vermont, our metropolis of 40,000 people is a relative hot spot while two of most rural counties have no confirmed cases at all. The government of Vermont is going to be able to do a much better of job of deciding under what circumstance and with what appropriate precautions we can go back to work, occupation by occupation, than anyone in Washington, DC could possibly do. We will experiment in some ways; our neighbors will experiment in others; and we’ll learn from each other.

Of course, there is still a huge role for the federal government. The availability of kits for “test and trace” will help determine how quickly we can emerge from our bunkers; getting those tested and produced should be a federal responsibility. We can’t wait for a vaccine before we come out of hiding; but we’ll need vaccines approved and manufactured and available before we’re truly out of the woods. Getting a vaccine out is a job for the feds and private businesses although it will be up to the states to make sure everyone who is medically able to take the vaccine gets a shot.

As the stimulus dollars trickle in from Washington, DC, we don’t want them all to flow right back to Washington the state where Amazon is located. We want to be able to spend locally to restart our local economies. We can’t do that if the stores are shuttered. We can, though, if the stores are following appropriate local guidelines which allow social distancing.

All governors (and state legislators where they’re involved) will make some mistakes either in moving too quickly or too slowly. Those who are politically courageous will continue to shoulder responsibility and make decisions as the facts on the ground in their states seem to warrant. The best leaders admit their mistakes promptly and fix them. The worst mistake is to think that one federal policy will fit this whole huge country coming out of lockdown.

Tom, having some places under quarantine and other not is like having a peeing area in a swimming pool

Many smart people are concerned that coming out of lockdown in one place puts everyone else at risk. It’s hard to deny that there’s some risk. But the history of this virus is that it can be contained locally with only the worst clusters shut down. There was a crisis in Wuhan but not Beijing. There is certainly a crisis in NYC; but there is not in Plattsburg, NY. My son and daughter-in-law just had a healthy baby born by c-section in a hospital in Italy (you better believe I was worried). There is only one ridge line between the city they’re in and Lombardy, from where we have seen the terrible pictures of exhausted medical workers in over-burdened facilities.

Thanks again to all those who are working to keep us safe. We’ll be out and about soon, so we can do our share for you.

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