It was Saturday night on a main street in the South, but locals described something odd: One side of the street was almost normal, if quiet, with restaurants serving dinner and groups of young people milling around. The other side of the street looked practically vacant.
“There was no foot traffic on the left side,” recalled business owner Janet Atwell, 51.
Both sides of State Street are in cities called Bristol, but the left side is Virginia, the right side is Tennessee and the yellow line down the middle of the road is both a state border and a new frontier in this country’s uneven response to the coronavirus outbreak that often is breaking down along partisan lines.
The different scenes on either side of the pavement reflected the differing pace of the two state’s governors as they seek to contain the pandemic. On that Saturday night on March 21, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia, a Democrat, had established stricter limits on public gatherings than Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee, a Republican. Since then, both governors have banned dining inside restaurants and public gatherings of more than 10 people, but Northam has ordered a larger swath of nonessential businesses to close.
A month after the first coronavirus death in the United States, the state and local officials charged with trying to contain the outbreak here have not settled on a unified strategy. The country has a naturally decentralized public health infrastructure and a president who is loath to establish nationwide directives and has at times downplayed the threat of the virus. Experts say the resulting patchwork of policies reflects the country’s partisan divide, with some exceptions.
“There is more resistance to taking aggressive, proactive steps to address the pandemic among Republican governors,” said Jonathan Oberlander, professor and chair of social medicine at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
“Protecting the public health should be a nonpartisan issue,” he added. “But for now, at least, it is very much an issue defined by partisan divisions, and that means the response is very different in different parts of the country, which impedes our ability to take coordinated action to protect the public’s health.”
It has left some bordering states, as well as city governments and the states they are in, at odds over the best way to stop the spread of the virus.
Of at least 27 states that have formally issued statewide stay-at-home orders or advisories, only eight have Republican governors (and two of those governors, in Vermont and Massachusetts, lead mostly Democratic states). The only state in the largely Republican-led Deep South with such an order is Louisiana, which has a Democratic governor and a worsening outbreak of the virus.
Some governors have bucked this trend. Govenor Mike DeWine of Ohio, a Republican, outpaced many Democrats in announcing aggressive closures in response to the virus weeks ago; some Democrats, including Northam, have resisted mandating statewide stay-at-home orders.
But the divide goes well beyond governors’ mansions: A poll conducted by Pew last week found 78 percent of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic see the coronavirus as a major threat to the health of the US population, as opposed to 52 percent of Republicans and those who lean toward that party.
President Trump, who initially downplayed the virus and warned that strict containment measures could needlessly harm the economy, has stoked these partisan divisions. He has also shown an interest in making the response to the virus even more regionalized, pushing for a county-by-county approach that could contribute to further divergence in how red and blue America handles the crisis.
Some of the difference between red and blue states’ response to the virus can be explained by the way the virus has spread. It exploded in dense, Democratic areas, particularly Seattle and New York City. But from Monday to Thursday of last week, nine of the 10 states where the number of detected cases grew fastest were won by Trump in 2016, according to the FiveThirtyEight website. That could increase pressure on leaders in them to implement stricter containment measures.
In Tennessee, there are 1,373 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, according to the state’s website — three times more than in Kentucky, where Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has implemented a healthy-at-home order (Tennessee, however, appears to have done more than three times as many tests as Kentucky).
As the virus began to spread, Lee encouraged mayors to pray, according to a phone call obtained by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and told reporters he did not want to “mandate” the closure of businesses, citing the economic harms. He is resisting calls from Democrats and doctors to implement a statewide shelter-in-place order.
In Bristol, where two small cities with the same name meet on a main street that has become a lively tourist hub, the existence of different sets of rules has made some residents, business owners, and local officials uncomfortable.
“You kind of wish that the governor over there would have complied much sooner,” said Karen Hester, who owns a gift shop and an ice cream store — which she has decided to close for now — on the Virginia side of State Street.
Atwell, who owns a billiards room on the Tennessee side of State Street, is among those on that side who have gone further than Lee’s orders, scrambling familiar political lines in the process.
A Republican who voted for Trump in 2016, Atwell started to get nervous as the virus began to march through the country. She instructed her staff to disinfect the cues and pool tables between games, and kept wipes out in case her customers wanted to sanitize the balls, too, although she never saw anyone use them.
But it didn’t feel like enough. She closed the bar entirely on March 20, days before Lee’s dining-in mandate went into effect, even though she felt like she was taking her customers’ freedom by doing so.
“I may be totally different than most people on the Tennessee side, but maybe it’s the nurse in me saying it’s better safe than sorry,” Atwell said. “I didn’t want to be open and exposed to everything coming and going on the Tennessee side, and then walk across the street and potentially harm someone that’s taking more precautions.”
Justin Brown, 34, the owner of a tattoo parlor on the Tennessee side of the street, is allowed to stay open under Lee’s orders, although he would be deemed a nonessential business and would have to close if he were located across the street, in Virginia.
But he, too, decided to close up shop.
“Tennessee has, I feel, kind of dropped the ball a bit,” he said. “I’m obviously not a medical professional or a scientist or anything like that — I draw pictures for a living — but I’d rather be a little more safe than sorry.”
Other businesses near the main drag were still open and taking a more relaxed attitude. Hal Boyd, the co-owner with his brother of Boyd’s bike shop on the Tennessee side, said his business was busier than ever.
“The weather’s turned nice here, kids are out of school,” he said, and, in response to a question, joked that people were closer to 6 inches apart than the CDC-recommended 6 feet apart in their cramped store.
“I hope we’re erring on the safe side,” he said. “We really don’t know, nobody knows how serious this is. More people have died from the flu in the last several years and you know, they didn’t shut it down when we had the swine flu or bird flu.”
Some localities in Tennessee, including the city of Nashville and Knox County, have issued their own stay-at-home orders. But leaders in others, including Mayor Chaz Molder of Columbia, say they lack the power to do so even though they want to. Overall, Molder said, the lack of a clear order from the governor has slowed the overall response from residents, some of whom still view coronavirus as a distant threat.
“I think it’s natural that until it’s in your own backyard it’s tough to understand,” Molder said.