Governors invoke science to justify vastly different reopening policies

Governors invoke science to justify vastly different reopening policies
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America’s governors are a busy bunch, issuing orders, directives and proclamations to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But something’s amiss. Despite their political differences, all 50 are in absolute agreement about one important fact: Each one is employing the best “data and science” to save lives and protect the public health. But the policies these governors use vary in significant ways, which means they can’t all be right at the same time.

If every governor were able to use the best science and data, one might expect the different states to gradually converge toward a common approach. That is not happening. The different restrictions and reopening plans around the country are numerous; activities allowed on one side of a state border are prohibited on the other. Gyms are open in Utah but not Colorado. Bars are open in Kansas but not Missouri. Dining at restaurants was never prohibited in Missouri, but still is in Illinois.

Or, consider the different policies on public gatherings. According to data from the National Governors Association, many states at some point banned gatherings in groups of 10 or more. Yet even then, they chose different limits: 15, 25, 50 or 250. New Jersey and Mississippi believed where people met mattered, limiting indoor groups to 10 and outdoor ones to 25 and 20, respectively. South Carolina banned meetings larger than just three. Some went further and banned gatherings of any size.


Some states never banned public gatherings of any size, such as Missouri. And some that did institute bans allowed exceptions, such as for church services. How could it be possible for these different policies to be informed by the same scientific, data-driven methods? It’s hard to imagine. But that’s what governors claim.

In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards said his stay-at-home order “was based on sound science and data and the recommendations of multiple public health experts and doctors.” A health official in Virginia said Gov. Ralph Northam “has made it clear that everything we do must be grounded in science, public health expertise, and data.” Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in describing why New York was joining six other northeastern states to create “a consistent strategy to restart the systems we shut down,” said “a framework based on science and data” will inform these decisions.

Seven governors of Midwestern states announced, in mid-April, a partnership that would use “a fact-based, data-driven approach to reopening our economy.” But the policies used in these states vary as much as they do across the country. Consider retail shopping: Indiana permitted it statewide on May 4, while Minnesota waited until May 18 to do the same. Michigan took a regional approach, allowing retailers in the northern and least populated areas of the state to open May 22. Illinois, meanwhile, reopened statewide for retailers on May 29, but not in Chicago.

A data-driven approach might produce some differences such as these. After all, states differ in important ways. But it is difficult to imagine how data could explain why a small town in Indiana needs different rules than a similar town a few miles away in Illinois. Yet this is what pandemic policies look like.

States are taking different approaches to enforcing emergency orders, too. Most make use of temporary powers granted to governors to issue orders that have the force of law. Some states rely on a combination of local and state agencies, such as public health departments, creating a complex web of overlapping orders and responsibilities for residents to keep straight.


These varied strategies mean that there is no typical American experience. It all depends on where you live. So, while Tennesseans get a reopening plan that boasts of not being a “burden of heavy mandates,” Michiganders have to keep up with over 100 different executive orders and guidance provided through about 1,000 frequently asked questions. And while Utah and Wyoming simply encourage people to stay home, police in Detroit have issued more than 2,500 citations for violations of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s lockdown rules.

Many governors have declared their policies effective, and none, that we’ve seen, has admitted to a misstep. Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania recently claimed, “We know not only that we succeeded in slowing case growth, but that our actions … saved lives.” In Washington, Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert Inslee Washington state extends eviction protections through end of October Washington governor to Idaho officials: Stop 'clogging up my hospitals' Seattle area to require COVID-19 vaccine to enter indoor venues MORE spoke of “hard-won gains” resulting from the “dedication of Washingtonians to [his stay-at-home] order.” And in Wisconsin, before courts struck down his own stay-at-home order, Gov. Tony Evers said, “Safer at Home is working. We’ve saved hundreds of lives. I feel good about that.”

Proving these orders are working is a tall task; doing so requires careful social science work that has not yet been performed. Are the fiercely enforced orders more effective than mere guidance and recommendations? Do stricter limits on gatherings contain the virus more effectively than looser limits? Do bans on retail sales reduce virus transmission more than safety protocol mandates without bans? It will take time to answer these important questions, but that has not prevented governors from declaring their policies effective, even when the things they do are substantially different.

So, while every governor invokes data and science to justify a wide variety of policies addressing the same problem, the analysis needed to assess the impact of these policies is not yet available. Governors may be attempting to build the public’s confidence in cloaking their orders in data and science, but if the emperor is found naked, they risk further eroding the public’s trust. Honesty, humility and transparency can build the public’s confidence just as well as the comforts of “data and science.”

James M. Hohman is the director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute in Midland, Mich. 

Michael Van Beek is the director of research at the Mackinac Center.