States lead, unevenly, on coronavirus response

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) on Thursday ordered a halt to any social gatherings over 100 people, the most aggressive move aimed at stamping out the coronavirus spreading through his state. 

Two days later, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) took a selfie with his family in a crowded restaurant. “It's packed tonight!” Stitt wrote on Twitter, as hundreds of people chastised him for failing to practice social distancing.

In the face of the most challenging viral outbreak in modern memory, the disparate responses have set some governors apart.

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States increasingly are leaning into stringent alarms and measures to protect their residents, from school and restaurant closures to banning public gatherings. 

Governors in 18 states have activated the National Guard to help with the response. Nineteen states have restricted state employees from traveling.

At least one governor, Kentucky's Andy Beshear (D), had himself tested for the coronavirus after a fellow attendee at an event last week tested positive. Beshear is negative for the virus.

Beshear and DeWine on Sunday joined a growing number of governors who have ordered bars and restaurants closed to dine-in customers. 

DeWine also said his administration would broaden unemployment benefits to cover those who are under quarantine. He announced Monday that voters would have the option to cast ballots curbside in Tuesday's presidential primary.

“He’s used his public platform to communicate the seriousness of the situation to his state, and has leaned forward when it comes to taking actions within his power to help slow down the transmission rate.  It’s especially impressive since his posture has often put him at odds with a president from his own party,” said Brent Colburn, the top spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Obama administration and now vice president for communications and public affairs at Princeton.

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In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has taken perhaps the most aggressive approach to fighting an outbreak centered around a synagogue in New Rochelle, in Westchester County. Cuomo ordered a containment zone around the synagogue and dispatched $200,000 to local food banks. He said the state would begin mixing its own hand sanitizer, to be distributed for free, and the state has contracted with 28 private laboratories to increase its testing capacity.

On Monday, Cuomo said bars, gyms, casinos and restaurants would close in his state and in neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut.

“Our primary goal right now is to slow the spread of this virus so that the wave of new infections doesn't crash our healthcare system, and everyone agrees social distancing is the best way to do that,” Cuomo said Monday. “I have called on the federal government to implement nationwide protocols, but in their absence we are taking this on ourselves.”

Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeSunday shows preview: Lawmakers, state governors talk coronavirus, stimulus package and resources as pandemic rages on Washington state limits funerals to immediate family members only Trump approves disaster declaration for Michigan despite sparring with state's governor MORE (D) has ordered schools closed for six weeks, the longest closure in the nation so far, in his state's three largest counties, where the first domestic outbreak of coronavirus began with a single case in late January. 

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) ordered his state's Department of Motor Vehicles to serve customers by appointment only. All non-essential state employees will work from home, and Hogan reopened the state health care exchange for a special enrollment period. 

On the day Maryland confirmed its first case of community spread, Hogan took the dramatic step of delegating all other governing duties to his lieutenant, Boyd Rutherford, so that he could turn his full attention to combating the virus.

The state action stands in stark contrast to the Trump administration, which has sent mixed signals in recent days. President TrumpDonald John TrumpWith VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world Coronavirus hits defense contractor jobs Wake up America, your country doesn't value your life MORE on Sunday urged Americans to “relax,” minutes before the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, said the worst is yet to come.

“It's impossible to underestimate the power of the president's communications. The entire government can be delivering a consistent message, but if the president says something different, then it all gets muddled. The president needs to be very deliberate with his words and strategic about the messages he sends,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who served as a top aide on Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioLessons from the front line — Florida's fight with sea level rise SNAP, airlines among final hurdles to coronavirus stimulus deal Senior State Department official headed to Peru to bring home stranded Americans, Rubio says MORE's (R-Fla.) presidential campaign.

The hodgepodge of state action helps in the absence of more concrete national guidance, but only a coherent national strategy will work to ease the outbreak, experts said.

“We need much more of a national consensus. Number one is, what mitigation strategies actually work?” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Prevention at the University of Minnesota. “I have no real hope that we're going to prevent cases. What we're really trying to accomplish is that we don't overwhelm the health system any more than it's already going to be.”

Most governors across the country have been holding near-daily press briefings, both to update the most recent case counts and to warn residents to stay home as much as possible. Crisis communications experts said that constantly hammering home the same message would pay dividends as the public becomes more aware of the virus's threat.

“The most important thing is effective communications from leaders. Communications should be factual and instructive. Honestly tell people what the risks are and what individuals can do to protect themselves. When people are nervous, you need to give them guidance. If they don't get truthful answers from government leaders, they lose confidence, which makes the crisis harder to solve,” Conant said. “Inconsistent government messaging can also create confusion, which causes people to seek their own answers — which inevitably leads to the spread of misinformation.”

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In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) encouraged the growth of the state’s Twitter account, which has gained a following with its sassy memes and wit. That account is now being used to spread information about the virus and to promote social distancing.

Even some governors who had moved slowly or downplayed the threat of the virus began to change their tune.

After the online backlash, Stitt deleted his Saturday tweet. By Sunday, he had declared a state of emergency. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R), who said Wednesday he was looking forward to a St. Patrick's Day parade in Greenville, issued his own emergency declaration and ordered schools closed in two counties where the virus is spreading. 

The parade in Greenville was canceled Thursday.