Officials are starting to debate who has the authority to decide when the public threat caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided to the point that restrictions on public interaction can be eased. Unfortunately, the debate seems to be driven by pride rather than prudence.
President Trump recently said that the decision on when to begin opening up the nation’s economy would be the hardest decision he ever makes. On Monday he declared that he alone can make that decision.
Governors of several states, as well as constitutional scholars, were quick to counter that states have the legal and practical authority to do so.
Similar arguments have broken out at the local level. Some Rio Grande Valley school officials have chafed at orders given by mayors, county judges and even the governor to close schools, and if and when they might reopen. Some school officials have indicated that voters elected them, and no one else, to make decisions that affect the students under their jurisdiction.
Public safety, however, is too important to devolve into spitting matches among officials whose attention should be focused on the greater public good.
The president’s first assertion is right — it’s a tough call. Allowing people to begin interacting with each other too soon risks undoing any progress that has been made against the potentially deadly virus. It could reignite the wave of contamination and death, much of which might have been prevented by holding off a few more weeks. Unnecessary delays in allowing businesses to start ramping up their operations, however, could push some of those countries into insolvency, costing untold numbers of jobs and millions in economic activity.
However, the president is wrong about being the lone authority on reopening the economy. Ours is a large, diverse country and the coronavirus has affected different states, and even different regions within those states. Blanket decisions might be made later than necessary for some parts of the country, and too soon for others.
The virus has hit hardest in the largest, and busiest, areas — coastal states and commercial centers. It’s logical, as people living and working in those areas travel the most and are more likely to contract virulent germs on their trips.
And that is where COVID-19 cases are concentrated in the United States. With the exception of Texas, Louisiana and Colorado, which have large cities and frequent travelers, the numbers of cases in the farm-rich central U.S., between the Mississippi River and Sierra Nevada, are low to moderate.
Obviously, each governor should be in a better position to maintain or ease restrictions for his or her state. And within those states, especially those as large as Texas, county and even city officials are best able to assess the readiness of their areas.
Because it is such a tough decision, it’s best not left to a single person. Ideally, officials at all levels should be willing to consult with each other and reach consensus decisions for their respective areas. And that can only happen of officials are willing to see each other as allies working toward the overall good, and not competitors for superiority.