WASHINGTON – It was an election day with no election in Ohio on Tuesday.
“We should not force them to make this choice, a choice between their health and their constitutional rights and their duties as American citizens,” said Governor Mike DeWine of voters on Monday before he sued in civil court to delay the Democratic and Republican primaries until June 2. When a judge rejected his request, the state’s public health director, Amy Acton, issued an order that closed polling locations anyway.
For DeWine, a Republican, it was the latest in his aggressive steps to contain the coronavirus, acting before his state was hit hard.
Yet Ohio’s efforts capture the patchwork of responses from state and local officials as they have raced to counter a crisis in the absence of a coordinated federal strategy. In the same span of days that President Trump downplayed concerns over coronavirus, DeWine declared a state of emergency after just three people had tested positive for the virus. He enacted the most far-reaching ban of large gatherings of any state official. He suspended college classes, then was the first governor to close public schools.
As of Tuesday, Ohio had only 67 reported cases. By contrast, governors in New York, Washington, and Massachusetts—the first two are Democrats— began moving quickly only after the numbers climbed. New York now had 1,374 confirmed cases as of Tuesday. Massachusetts had 218.
Once a moderate Republican who worked across party lines, DeWine he has hardened in recent years into “a fire-breathing conservative,” said David Niven, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. But the outbreak has triggered a change, he said.
"This crisis in some sense has returned him to the original Mike DeWine, who sees the bigger picture and tries to act with a broader coalition behind him,” Niven said.
Other governors have been slower to act or haven’t acted at all.
Oklahoma Republican Governor Kevin Stitt declared a statewide emergency Sunday only after drawing backlash for tweeting a photo of himself and two of his children at a packed restaurant when health officials have been urging social distancing. Texas Republican Governor Gregg Abbott has left it up to cities, counties, and schools to respond however they see fit.
Tensions over the mishmash of efforts spiked on Monday when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Trump took swipes at each other after Cuomo penned an open letter to the president in The New York Times urging him to take more aggressive action and chided him after a call with governors nationwide for not doing enough.
When it comes to having a coordinated policy response to a crisis, whether a natural disaster or a pandemic, the United States has generally lagged behind other countries with more centralized forms of government, policy experts said. That responses vary widely across states and localities is not unusual, said Julia Lynch, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.
“What is unusual from a comparative perspective right now is that there is probably less coordinated national level leadership than one would usually see in a crisis,” Lynch said.
Trump administration officials in 2018 dismantled the team responsible for pandemic response. As global health officials sounded alarm over coronavirus, the Trump administration was slow to coordinate efforts to prevent and monitor its spread. The president also delayed declaring a national emergency, which policy analysts called vital to containing a contagious disease outbreak, stalling federal aid to local and state governments.
“Given the almost near total lack of preparedness, prevention, and containment paired with very inadequate response after it was spreading on US soil has meant that [the virus] has spread quickly,” said Charley Willison, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Medical School. The vacuum in federal strategy has risked “the health of the nation overall but also risks health disparities across states.”
As Trump defended his collaboration with governors on Monday, DeWine was announcing his lawsuit to delay the primaries and moving to take another slate of aggressive actions, including shutting down all fitness centers, public recreation centers, and movie theaters.
DeWine, Acton, and other state officials began to prepare the state’s response to coronavirus as early as late January, when the state’s health department first hosted a call with local health departments and local health care providers. Public health officials later activated a statewide network to keep agencies informed, ran through response simulations, and trained 140 people to staff a call center should it be needed.
“First of all, remember that what we’ve been saying is that we’re saving lives — every one of us who doesn’t spread it to someone else,” Acton said Tuesday of the state’s aggressive actions, warning that Ohio was on the “upslope” of a curve and would likely see cases multiply.
In some ways, state officials said, Ohio has been better prepared than most states to respond to the medical emergency because it has been a hotspot of the national opioids crisis. Efforts undertaken over the past decade have brought experts from multiple disciplines and background together and tended to rise above political partisanship.
Republican John Kasich began assembling the multiple-agency approach when he became governor in 2011. DeWine, who over his eight years as attorney general had worked to shut down pill mills across the state, built on those efforts. His staffers say he has a reputation for turning to experts first.
Jeremy Youde, an expert on global health politics, said it’s too soon to tell whether aggressive actions have made a difference in slowing the spread of the virus, but governors have taken steps to mitigate the outbreak as they see what has happened elsewhere in the United States and in countries including Italy and South Korea.
“The hope is that we take a little bit of pain on now so that we can lift the restrictions sooner as opposed to taking on less restrictions now, which might be easier for life, but face greater chances of transmission and could last longer,” said Youde, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Still, DeWine’s steps to delay elections could put him on a limb, some said. Richard Cordray, a Democrat and lawyer who ran against DeWine for governor in 2018, said state officials needed to ensure they were balancing the health risks with other risks, such as shutting down the economy, putting people out of work, or denying families that ability to pay rent or feed their children.
“I don’t have all the latest health data that government officials have, but I thought postponing the primary at the last minute was not done properly," he said.
On Tuesday, DeWine doubled down on his decision to defy a court order rejecting the state’s request.
“We all felt that this would be a real, real disaster,” he told reporters. The governor said his office is now working on a new order to hold elections on June 2 and to give voters ample ability to vote by mail, as he expects the state to enter “a more difficult time.”
“We’re going to have more and more of our citizens who become ill,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the political affiliations of the governors of New York, Washington and Massachusetts. Only two of them are Democrats. The governor of Massachusetts is a Republican.