In his column in this morning’s Times, Daniel Finkelstein cited the famous Churchill quote after El Alamein: “Now is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” In its COVID-19 journey, the UK is perhaps approaching the end of the beginning as discussion around an easing of restrictions increases.
Meanwhile, the United States has pursued a much faster route to “the end” at a national level, where Donald Trump is in a hurry to get the country open for business as soon as reasonably possible. It has prompted a battle to reopen America that is taking place along deeply political lines.
A constitutional crisis is on the horizon, as the President continues to test the limits of executive power. In a conference call with state governors last week, Trump told them that he wants to begin to reopen the US economy on May 1. The White House has distributed a document of guidelines for “Opening up America Again” that offers proposed phased re-openings in states or regions that meet certain “gating” criteria.
Republican Governors are falling into line
As ever, constitutionally it is worth remembering that power lies largely with governors, on a state-by-state basis, not with the White House. But politically, Republican governors are under pressure to follow the President’s intent.
In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp has outlined plans to begin easing current lockdown requirements. Gyms, bowling alleys, barbers and salons will be allowed to re-open from April 24. Restaurants and theatres will re-open on 27 April.
In Tennessee, Governor Bill Lee said this week that he was not extending his “safer-at-home” order that is set to expire on April 30. Most businesses in 89 counties will be allowed to reopen on May 1.
In South Carolina, Governor Henry McMaster has relaxed rules for previously non-essential businesses, including department stores. Public beaches are set to be reopened as well.
Other states with Republican Governors that are beginning to either ease lockdown rules or signal their intent to do so soon include Texas, Vermont, Ohio, Idaho, Florida and North Dakota.
Governor Tim Walz (Minnesota) is a rare Democrat who has eased restrictions in his state, having allowed some recreational activities to resume this week. Elsewhere, governors are working together on a regional basis.
Connecticut’s stay at home order expires on May 20, and the state is allied with Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island in a multistate effort to coordinate reopening.
But are Americans ready to return to normal life?
The political response to COVID-19 has fallen into predictable political lines, the likes of which often define politics in the United States. Fringes of the Conservative right who prioritise freedom, liberty and small government have taken to the streets in protest at their state Governor’s cautiousness to lift restrictions.
Michigan has become the epicentre of these protests, where the Democratic Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is under sever pressure to lift restrictions in her state. Similar demonstrations have taken place in more than a dozen states, where protests range from the handful to the thousands.
Trump has expressed tacit support for the protestors, and certainly their right to protest. Last week, he described protestors as “great people”. He has demanded states be “liberated”.
For all the political battles and protests dominating the airwaves, it is worth remembering that exit strategies and an easing of restrictions is just as much about the willingness of citizens in their states to return to normal life as it the decisions of governors to loosen their restrictions.
It is patently obvious that those protesting with signs declaring “freedom” and “choice” are ready to resume working, spending and socialising. But a new poll showed most Americans feel it would be risky to return to “normal” life just yet and would wait indefinitely or at least for a few more months for the threat of coronavirus infection to subside.
The response is largely split along party lines, with 21 per cent more Democrats considering returning work a risk compared to Republicans. Overall, 50.6 per cent of Americans disapprove of the President’s handling of COVID-19 compared to 47.1 per cent who approve (RealClearPolitics).
Expect the White House to keep ramping up the pressure
The President has made the COVID-19 response increasingly political in recent weeks. That will continue as the White House puts Republican governors under even more pressure to ease their restrictions, with William Barr, the Attorney General, describing stay at home orders as “disturbingly close to house arrest”.
Trump is anxious to resume economic activity in order to begin reversing the 22 million Americans who have filed for unemployment benefit since restrictions were imposed. Returning to the playbook that successfully propelled him into the White House in 2016, he is turning his focus again towards immigration and China.
In an executive order, he has paused immigration for 60 days. The link between COVID-10 – the “Invisible Enemy” – and China was brought into sharp focus by Tom Cotton, a Republican Senator, who tweeted: “22 million Americans have lost their jobs in the last month because of the China virus. Let’s help them get back to work before we import more foreigners to compete for their jobs”.