Blue states scramble to loosen restrictions after Red states’ success
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was broadly chided after he announced March 2 that his state was reopening without restrictions and without a mask mandate.
“I just announced Texas is OPEN 100%. EVERYTHING,” the Republican governor tweeted. “I also ended the statewide mask mandate.”
Later in the day, Mississippi followed Texas. Although the restrictions did not go into effect until the next week, the states and their citizens immediately leaned into the end to the mandated mask requirements and the mitigations. Iowa, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota then followed with the elimination of mask requirements.
Pushback came from all directions after Abbott’s announcement.
“Opening everything to 100 percent while simultaneously nixing our mask mandate is a huge mistake,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, a Democrat, said in a statement.
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called Abbott’s decision “ignorant,” and “really ridiculous.”
Star Trek actor George Takei tweeted, “Make no mistake. Texas and Mississippi opening back up to 100% will disproportionately impact and kill minorities, who comprise much of the essential work force bearing the brunt of this pandemic. This is criminal, a racist death sentence for so many who could have been spared.”
Two weeks later, the data from Texas and Mississippi suggests that neither state is faring worse than states that haven’t yet begun to meaningfully open their states. Comparatively, Texas’ new daily case totals have improved since the reopening.
Per New York Times data, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Texas dropped to 3,420 on March 18 from 7,240 on March 2.
Mississippi’s number increased, but only slightly, to 322 cases on March 18 from 302 on March 2 – far below its COVID apex on Jan. 9, when it reported 3,203 new cases.
State re-openings around the country appear to be pressuring states – particularly northern states with Democratic governors, to soften their stances on mitigations. Now, with vaccines promised to the nation by May 1, governors who had dug in are relenting on mitigations. Some more slowly than others.
In Illinois, where Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker continues to face scrutiny for his handling of state nursing home deaths, an intermediary tier – he called it a “bridge” between Phase 4 (easing of restrictions) and Phase 5 (normalcy) – was announced Thursday. Pritzker, who has operated almost exclusively alone and without contribution from the state’s legislature, has been accused of moving the goalposts several times throughout COVID.
Pritzker’s “bridge” includes new but only slightly enhanced capacities for restaurants and public spaces. Illinois’ confirmed COVID cases were down to 2,409 on March 18. Illinois’ apex reporting of COVID-positive cases occurred on Nov. 13, when it maxed out at 15,223 new cases.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose former Department of Health and Human Services Director, Robert Gordon, abruptly resigned on Jan. 22, said Friday that the state will allow 8,200 fans into Comerica Park for the Detroit Tigers’ home opener on April 1.
Earlier in the week, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced that the state would allow restaurant occupancy to increase to 75% and resume bar service without a dining mandate on April 4.
In New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo is under siege with lingering accusations of pencil whipping nursing home death numbers and unwanted sexual advances toward former female staffers, only 13% of schools have resumed in-person learning. Heralded as a progressive leader and awarded an Emmy for his daily briefings on COVID-19, Cuomo announced Friday that he is removing a curfew on movie theaters, casinos and gyms. But those curfews will remain in effect for the state’s restaurants and bars.
Florida hasn’t lifted its mask mandate but the state government has not imposed its will as many northern governors have during the pandemic.
Florida reported 19,816 new cases on Jan. 7. The number of new cases on March 18 was reported as 5,093. Tampa played host to Super Bowl LV on the first Sunday of February. The game was attended by 25,000 fans and thousands more roamed the streets of Tampa in the week preceding the game.
ABC News questioned whether the Super Bowl would be a super-spreader event in its coverage on Feb. 8, citing “fans partying without masks or bothering to social distance.” On March 3, the local ABC affiliate in Tampa, WFTS-TV, reported March 3 that it was not. A total of 57 cases – 53 in Tampa and four from outside the Super Bowl and its festivities – were reported to the Florida Department of Public Health.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, seen in photographs and memes chugging beers with motorcycle enthusiasts at Daytona Beach’s Bike Week over the past week, had said prior to the event that the state wouldn’t have lockdowns and urged visitors to use common sense when gathering.
“The lockdown approach, where people are constantly beat over the heads with these directives, where you have massive unemployment, where you have closed schools for a year in some of these places, not only has it been absolutely destructive to these societies, the COVID results per capita have been worse,” the Republican said Thursday night on Fox News.
The governor added that “these are some of the top experts in the world being able to validate that Florida’s approach was the proper approach and the lockdown approach is a failed approach.”
Elsewhere in America…
Several bills introduced in the Texas Legislature would expand educational options for Texas parents, including through special needs micro-grants, learning pod protections, expanding and improving virtual school programs and public charter schools, and creating education savings accounts and tax credits. The bills are lauded by school choice groups who argue the statewide shutdown revealed the widespread need and demand for increased academic options.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is seeking an exemption for New Mexico from an executive order issued by President Joe Biden that halted new oil and gas leasing on federal land. During a virtual meeting hosted by the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, Lujan Grisham mentioned a “get tough” letter the state’s Energy Department secretary sent to the Biden administration asking for the waiver. In the letter, cabinet secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst writes that Biden’s order “has resulted in on-the-ground uncertainties that undermine our ability to safeguard New Mexico’s economy and environment.”
Several legislators introduced a resolution last week to end the state of emergency in California. At a news conference with county supervisors, which was posted on YouTube and later taken down by the platform “because it was too long,” the legislators called for an end to all state-level COVID restrictions in California. They also presented resolutions passed by 14 counties that call for the immediate removal of the governor’s Blueprint-color coded tier system to allow Californians to live their lives freely.
State officials have recorded 21,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in Illinois since the outset of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed 19,893 deaths through the end of February in Illinois where COVID-19 was listed among multiple causes. Of those deaths, about 1,830, or 9.2%, had COVID-19 listed as the sole cause of death. But a county coroner is calling for a full audit after reviewing some of the deaths in his county. “My concern is, I’ve reviewed several cases, [of 100 cases] about 10 of them here in Monroe County, that the state has deemed COVID-related deaths and none of them have had underlying conditions or contributing factors to COVID,” Monroe County Coroner Bob Hill said. “So my concern is no matter when the person was tested positive, the state is automatically giving them a death classification as related to COVID.”
Gov. J.B. Pritzker says his “bridge” to a full reopening is based on conversations with health experts and industry groups. Others say it doesn’t go far enough. The Illinois Restaurant Association and the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association said in a joint statement with the governor the plan provides clarity and takes steps toward recovery. The multifaceted plan would allow minor increases in economic activity when 70% of people 65 and older get vaccinated. For example, standing areas for dining under Phase 4 are capped at 25%. When the vaccination threshold for the elderly is met, standing areas can increase to 30% capacity. Health and fitness centers can increase from 50% to 60% capacity when the vaccination threshold is met.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue COVID-19 relief bill will deliver more than $5.48 billion in stimulus funds to Missouri, including $2.8 billion for state coffers, $1.2 billion for counties, $1.2 billion for cities and $195 million for capital projects. But a provision in the American Rescue plan bars states and local governments from using the assistance monies to offset tax cuts or adopt new ones. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt is one of 21 Republican state attorneys general questioning that provision in a seven-page letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. The prohibition is “unclear,” they write, noting it is “potentially breathtaking” that federal aid cannot be used for tax relief.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost says the federal government is holding the state’s American Rescue Plan money hostage, and he has filed motion in federal court to allow Ohio to have control of its tax structure and economic policy. Yost filed a request for an injunction last week in the U.S. District Court of Southern Ohio to bar what he called the enforcement of the “Tax Mandate” included in the American Rescue Plan. Yost said the provision exceeds congressional authority. “The federal government should be encouraging states to innovate and grow business, not holding vital relief funding hostage to its preferred pro-tax policies,” Yost said in a news release.
Gov. Ralph Northam restored the voting rights of 69,000 Virginians on Tuesday and changed the eligibility requirements to make it easier for felons to have their rights restored in the future. Going forward, the governor changed the criteria to make every person eligible to have his or her civil rights restored upon release from incarceration, even if the person remains on community supervision. These rights include the right to vote, the right to run for office and the right to serve on a jury.
The Kentucky General Assembly wasted little time in approving a one-year, $12 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts in July. The spending plan, House Bill 192, does not include the $2.4 billion the state expects to receive from the American Rescue Plan, which Congress passed last week. However, it does stipulate that those funds cannot be spent without lawmakers’ approval. Instead, Republican leaders have decided to hold off on earmarking those funds. Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, told colleagues Monday they await “guidance” from federal officials on how the state can spend the money.
Legislation that would establish West Virginia’s first school voucher system passed the Senate last week and is headed to Gov. Jim Justice’s desk. House Bill 2013, sponsored by Del. Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, would allow parents to apply their students for the Hope Scholarship Program. The program would award students with vouchers equal to $4,600 per year to be used for private schooling or homeschooling expenses in place of public school. The initial rollout of the program would cost the state about $23 million. By the 2027-28 school year, it would cost about $100 million annually if every homeschool and private school student receives a voucher.
The state experienced a 94% increase in new business license applications from January 2020 to January 2021 despite economic restrictions enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. Census Bureau of Statistics data showed North Carolina received 16,171 new applications in January 2021 compared with 8,361 applications in January 2020. Gregg Thompson, North Carolina state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said the increase was surprising and likely was attributable to North Carolina’s flexible business climate and the gap left in services from business closures.
Gov. Brian Kemp announced last week that $277 million in federal COVID-19 funding will be used to fund local transportation projects across the state. Kemp’s office said the money will allow the Georgia Department of Transportation to start early upgrades on the state’s freight network in Jefferson, Jasper, Putnam, Upson and Barrow counties. The federal relief also will replace state funds committed to resurfacing and rehabilitating Georgia’s state routes and interstate highways.
Legislation being considered in the Tennessee Legislature looks to keep state government from picking winners and losers among the state’s businesses during a health-related state of emergency. The Business Fairness Act would allow a business, regardless of size, to remain open during health emergencies as long as it follows government-issued safety precautions and guidelines. “The Tennessee Business Fairness Act is commonsense legislation that will help many small businesses survive another crisis like COVID-19 and keep people working,” National Federation of Independent Business Tennessee State Director Jim Brown said.
The state is expected to receive $5.2 billion in federal funding as part of the American Rescue Plan, with $3.2 billion going to state government. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards proposed using the money on infrastructure improvements, to promote tourism and to replenish the state’s unemployment trust fund. The fund had a balance of more than $1 billion before the COVID-19 pandemic, but unprecedented demand drained the fund and the state was forced to borrow money from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits.
Five of Oregon’s largest unions say frontline workers deserve a bigger piece of the $4.2 billion in federal stimulus pouring into the state. Under their proposal, frontline workers making less than $50,000 per year would be eligible for a one-time payment of $2,000. Everyone making more than that amount would be eligible to receive a one-time payment of $1,000.
New revenue forecasts show Washington state’s balance sheets may be back in the black for the first time since last spring, raising big questions about the wisdom of proposed tax increases. Last spring, state economists projected state revenue to be $8.8 billion short over the next three years. Nearly a year later, however, the current 2019-2021 budget cycle is taking in $1.3 billion more than prior projections, and the 2021-2023 cycle is set to see $1.9 billion more than expected. Those numbers leave the state with a shortfall of less than $100 million, or just 6% of the $1.6 billion the state has sitting in cash reserves. The revised budget numbers put into question whether Democrats’ capital gains tax and wealth tax proposals are necessary to plug previously projected budget holes, and gives Washington Republicans new ammunition to use against the proposals.
Colorado Democrats announced their long-anticipated public health care option proposal on Thursday, which they say would provide more competition and drive down costs. The proposal would include a first phase, which would give health insurers 2.5 years to meet a 20% decrease in insurance prices, and a second phase “stopgap” that would establish the Colorado Health Insurance Option. Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera called the proposal “a balanced approach to bringing more affordable health insurance options” to the state. Health industry groups and business organizations, however, oppose the plan as a “path to the government-run single payer health care system” that isn’t a market-driven solution.
Like most states, Arizona hasn’t fared as poorly as it expected when the COVID-19 pandemic had begun. Despite what’s now a $351 million budget surplus, the state is in line to receive more than $4 billion from the recently enacted federal COVID-19 relief plan. That’s the estimation from Arizona’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee, a nonpartisan body. The JLBC estimated that Arizona state and local governments would receive $7.48 billion that could be spent anytime before the end of 2024. It would allocate more capital spending and business assistance.
The proposal from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to raise $2.2 billion by imposing tolls on nine bridges across the state is continuing to face opposition from lawmakers, with a key Republican senator proposing to eliminate the power under which PennDOT would launch its proposal. Sen. Wayne Langerholc, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, has introduced a bill that would repeal a 2012 law that gave PennDOT certain rulemaking abilities in order to attract private investment. Langerholc and other lawmakers say the 2012 law was never intended to allow PennDOT to raise massive amounts of funds in the way it is proposing with the tolls.
Officials in the Cuomo administration say New York is still facing a multibillion dollar budget deficit even taking into account a massive infusion of cash from the newly signed federal relief package. One method proposed to fill that gap has been the approval of up to three downstate casinos – a proposal endorsed by a Senate budget plan but not yet adopted by the Assembly. Sen. Joseph Addabbo, D-Queens, told The Center Square that the difference between the two budget plans will be settled in negotiations, and he said the casino proposal is an opportunity not only to raise revenue but to create jobs, as well.
The abrupt resignation of Michigan’s director of Health and Human Services and the $155,506 taxpayer-funded severance package he received along with a confidentiality agreement with the governor’s administration have continued to garner headlines. This week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced she was waiving the confidentiality agreement, but told reporters on Friday she won’t discuss MDHHS Director Robert Gordon’s resignation any further.
A Michigan Court of Claims judge has struck downSecretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s directive that local election clerks presume absentee ballot signatures are valid. On Oct. 6, Benson directed city clerks to operate under the presumption that signatures were valid when matching absentee ballot signatures with the voter signature on file to ensure they are the same person and to prevent voter fraud.
State legislators continue to battle Gov. Tim Walz’s efforts to tax Minnesota business owners who have received federal Paycheck Protection Program loans. The U.S. Congress approved the PPP program as part of the March 2020 stimulus law to stem last spring’s ballooning unemployment rate. The program handed $11.3 billion to 102,352 Minnesota businesses. If nothing changes, the state will tax businesses that took PPP loans as income at the corporate tax rate of 9.8%, which could leave a business that received $500,000 in PPP loans with a roughly $50,000 tax bill.
Minnesota Senate Republicans have proposed a $51.9 billion, two-year budget prioritizing COVID-19 recovery. The GOP argued on Tuesday the state doesn’t need to raise taxes thanks to a $1.6 billion projected surplus and nearly $5 billion on the way to state and local governments from the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package signed into law last week by President Joe Biden.
This article was originally posted on Blue states scramble to loosen restrictions after Red states’ success