As the coronavirus pandemic worsens, governors across the country are understandably ratcheting up quarantine orders. On Sunday, Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott expanded a two-week quarantine requirement on out-of-state travelers from Louisiana, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, and Miami. Previously, the order covered anyone flying into Texas from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and New Orleans. Abbott ordered state troopers to enforce the order on motorists driving into the state from Louisiana with the possibility of a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail for those who don’t comply.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Friday the state police will stop anyone with New York license plates and ordering them to self-quarantine for two weeks, which New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo denounced. On Sunday, Raimondo revised the order—by expanding it to include motorists from all states.
The governors of Florida, Delaware, and South Carolina have all issued some version of a quarantine requirement on out-of-state travelers. Alaska and Hawaii have had such orders in place for more than a week. Expect more states to follow suit in the coming days.
What to make of all this? The conventional wisdom in Washington is that this is all about President Trump and his failure of leadership, with governors now acting like mini-Trumps, eschewing the federal government, going their own way, and sowing chaos.
This way of thinking is best exemplified by Politico Playbook’s headline for Monday: “Trump’s nationalism has gone domestic.” The general idea seems to be that governors exercising police powers in an emergency is somehow the equivalent of Trump brushing off the United Nations, that by making decisions without waiting for the federal government’s say-so, governors are “helping Trump create an alternative narrative of culpability: that the ‘open borders’ crowd in the blue states let the virus in, while he tried to keep it out.”
Like McKay Coppins’ recent article in The Atlantic about the supposed “social distancing culture war,” this is an awkward and lazy attempt to project partisan politics onto the vicissitudes of pandemic response in a way that makes Trump and his supporters look bad.
It’s also exactly the wrong way to think about what’s happening in state capitols right now. The relationship between the federal government and the states isn’t at all analogous to the relationship between the U.N. and its member states—and to suggest so is to misunderstand completely the nature and structure of our constitutional system.
For all the sickness and death the coronavirus is causing, and for all the economic ruin our political leaders have sown in their response to it, this crisis is a powerful reminder that state borders matter, and that a federal republic like ours divides sovereignty between federal and state governments for a reason.
Simply put, there is no way the federal government can make decisions about who should be subject to a two-week quarantine, how to enforce such an order, or for how long to keep it in place. Such decisions properly fall under the purview of state governors, whose police powers in an emergency far exceed those of the president—hard as that might be for Washington-based journalists to fathom.
Indeed, the media seems to think the country revolves around Capitol Hill. That’s why the mainstream media overreacted a couple weeks back when Trump told governors to secure their own medical supplies to fight the coronavirus. It wasn’t because Trump didn’t want to help but because, as he said at the time, it would be faster for governors to act on their own.
The Media Need Remedial Lessons in Federalism
All of this seems to be more than the blue-check media can handle. The spectacle of governors issuing quarantine orders for travelers from certain parts of the country prompted Vox to publish a meandering yet hysterical piece last week on how it would tear the country apart and dismantle the post-New Deal order—as if that would be a bad thing.
In Vox’s view, federalism itself is a dangerous anachronism. The federal government should be in charge of the national safety net, including pandemic response, with governors acting merely as regional administrators for the federal bureaucracy in Washington.
But governors are not regional administrators, and states are not merely administrative departments ruled by Washington. What the media interprets as “chaos” among the states is our federalist system working as it should.
Our federalist system isn’t just an accident of history, it was intentional choice by our Founders. In a republic, most things that fall under the purview of government can and should be done at the most local level possible, in part because local officials know best what their communities need but also—and more importantly—because local residents can better hold local officials accountable for their actions.
This is as true during a pandemic as it is in normal times, maybe more so. If we’ve learned anything about the coronavirus so far, it’s that the disease spreads much more quickly in densely populated areas that rely on mass transit. That’s one reason New York City has a much higher rate of infection than, say, Los Angeles.
Naturally, dense megacities are going to need different responses to the virus than rural areas—and more resources from the federal government. The arrival of the USNS Comfort, a U.S. Navy hospital ship, to New York Harbor on Monday is a good example of that.
By the same token, less densely populated areas of country will want to protect themselves from contagion emanating from large cities, hence the quarantine requirements you see governors imposing on travelers.
A federalist system of course doesn’t mean that governors are always going to make the right decision. On Monday, for example, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam promulgated a stay-at-home order until June 10. No one really knows why he would do such a thing, since there’s no way to know, right now, whether such an order will make sense months from now.
But one thing is certain. The people of Virginia, many of whom will suffer economic ruin as a result of Northam’s order, will have a chance to let the governor know what they think of his leadership if he ever runs for political office again.
That’s as it should be. Some state leaders will rise to the challenge during this pandemic and provide sound leadership, some won’t. The desire for them all to be relegated to administrators carrying out orders from Washington is deeply misguided and, in a time of pandemic, dangerous.
An earlier version of this article has been corrected since publication.