State officials surround Texas Gov. Greg Abbott as he announces the reopening of more Texas businesses. Getty Images

State officials surround Texas Gov. Greg Abbott as he announces the reopening of more Texas businesses | Lynda M. Gonzalez-Pool/Getty Images

California

Reopening tension pits state, local officials against each other in sign of what’s to come

A growing number of local officials are writing their own reopening playbooks, defying state leaders in disputes that foretell months of regional skirmishes.

SACRAMENTO — A growing number of local elected officials are writing their own reopening playbooks, defying state leaders in disputes that foretell months of new regional skirmishes as the nation moves to rekindle its smoldering economy.

Mayors and county executives in rural regions where infection rates are lower than in denser, bigger cities say they’ve been unfairly held back from returning to a more normal way of life. Meanwhile, cautious officials who represent more vulnerable communities are fighting to prolong stay-at-home orders as governors, lawmakers or judges move to do the opposite.

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In Texas, the attorney general is scolding big city mayors for imposing stricter coronavirus orders in their communities than the state has instituted. In Wisconsin, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said she’s keeping the capital city’s stay-at-home measures in place even as the state Supreme Court struck down a statewide order. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf threatened punitive action against leaders across several counties that moved to reopen as the state maintained its lockdown orders.

Tension that began with governors versus the federal government has now trickled down, pitting officials within their own states against each other in ways that have direct implications for the fight against the virus and have already landed in the courts. Future disputes could complicate plans to respond to a resurgence, tie up urgent policy issues in legal wrangling and even risk lives.

With cases increasing in some places and falling in others — and with a second wave predicted in the fall — the new pandemic battlegrounds will be increasingly localized.

“Cities can't wait for the federal and state government for guidance,” said Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin, who has continued to clash with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, including last week over his decision to add tanning beds to the list of essential businesses. “There is not one single mayor that doesn't want all the lights back on and all the doors back open, but we need to be really careful about doing that.”

Experts say a one-size-fits-all approach for reopening is not an option — not when the number of new daily cases is changing at vastly different rates from city to city and state to state. Across many states that have started to reopen, governors have indeed prescribed economic restart plans based on regional metrics, not statewide figures. As that continues — and if the virus resurges — there could be even more openings for such disagreements.

“We have to be making decisions that are hyper local. This is not one big epidemic, it’s multiple, small epidemics,“ said Caroline Buckee, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, during a Brookings Institution discussion on reopening plans. “And the decisions we make have to reflect the inequalities in the location in question and how reopening is going to impact the relationships between different neighborhoods.”

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has faced backlash from coastal mayors over cracking down on beach use, and the Democratic governor has allowed more than 20 of the state's 58 counties to move faster than his original plan in the face of increasing pressure — and lawsuits — from those anxious to reopen.

Things escalated in Texas last week after Attorney General Ken Paxton sent letters to counties that include metropolitan hubs Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, chastising them for stricter local requirements on masks and mass gatherings that conflict with state efforts to loosen restrictions.

“Insofar as your order conflicts with the governor’s order, it is unenforceable,” Paxton’s office said in a letter to Dallas County’s top executive, Judge Clay Jenkins.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and other Texas officials have repeatedly clashed with the state’s large Democratic-controlled cities and counties since the start of the pandemic and continue to do so, even as the death toll continues to grow.

“We never dreamed that the governor was not serious about wanting people to follow his guidelines,” Jenkins said in an interview. “They didn’t give me a heads up on any concerns before this letter, but that’s the political nature of how things are running in Austin.”

In West Virginia, the dissonance between the governor and the mayor of the state’s largest city has been clear for some time, with Charleston declaring a state of emergency and activating its emergency operations center before the rest of the state did.

Shuler Goodwin, the mayor, said she has talked with mayors across the country facing the same disconnect who have felt like they’ve had to take matters into their own hands. On some issues, she said, it’s obvious where to draw the line.

“Do I think tanning beds are essential services? No. Of course I don't,” Shuler Goodwin said.

In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds made big moves to reopen her state last week, greenlighting salons, barbershops, tattoo and massage businesses. Her latest proclamation also extends partial reopenings of restaurants, libraries and fitness centers.

Reynolds had already eased restrictions in some counties, saying she “shouldn’t punish” the majority of the state because of high infection rates in certain areas. But as she was pushing people forward last week, Sioux City Mayor Bob Scott was urging his residents to remain cautious.

“I think a lot of our citizens realize that there's still a potential to have this thing expand … at this stage, it becomes an individual choice,” Scott said. “I know personally I'm not going to run right out and go shopping or do that type of activity.”

Scott said he’s had conversations with Reynolds about his concerns, and that she’s “very open” to discussions, but “I'm not sure I'll change her mind on anything.”

“She’s still the governor,” he said.

Public officials aren’t the only ones showing discontent with state responses. A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll conducted last week found a third of Americans rated their governor‘s handling of the virus either “just fair“ or “poor.”

As the virus slows its spread, and the public grows more antsy, partisan divisions could further shape the public health debate about the pandemic — and the debate about local politics.

“The pointy end of the stick here, the leading edge of reopening, is going to be at the county level and in the cities,” said David McCuan, an American politics professor at Sonoma State University in California who has been closely watching these disputes. “County supervisors, mayors and those local politicians are going to be the ones really deciding what reopening looks like. They’re going to be much more responsive to the sentiment of the population.”

McCuan predicts a wave of recall elections from voters dissatisfied with how their local officials handled the pandemic.

“The easy part for politicians is over,” he said. “The next stage of this thing is a free for all.”

Renuka Rayasam contributed to this report.

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