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Virus Response Shows Partisan Divide   03/30 06:15

   NEW YORK (AP) -- In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti has instituted a 
shutdown on a city of nearly 4 million people and threatened uncooperative 
business owners with power shutoffs and arrest.

   In Mississippi, home to nearly 3 million people, Gov. Tate Reeves has 
allowed most businesses to stay open --- even restaurants, so long as they 
serve no more than 10 people at a time.

   The divergent approaches are evidence that not even a global pandemic can 
bridge the gaping political divisions of the Trump era. The fierce tribalism 
that has characterized debates over immigration, taxes and health care is now 
coloring policy-making during a coronavirus outbreak that threatens countless 
lives and local economies across nation.

   There are exceptions, but Republican leaders have been far more likely to 
resist the most aggressive social distancing measures, emboldened by President 
Donald Trump's initial rosy outlook and a smaller early caseload in their more 
rural communities across middle America. But in the more crowded population 
centers on the East and West coasts where the disease first appeared, the 
Democrats in charge have been more willing to embrace strict steps such as 
curfews, sweeping business closures and law enforcement assistance.

   "This epidemic has been a window into our politics," said Larry Levitt, who 
leads health policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been tracking 
responses. "Particularly over the past couple of weeks, a political divide has 
emerged."

   It is an election year divide that could have deadly consequences. 

   As his campaign struggles for attention, leading Democratic presidential 
contender Joe Biden has called for a nationwide lockdown to replace the 
patchwork of local responses, which have varied even among neighboring 
communities in the same states. Trump, meanwhile, is largely allowing local 
officials to choose their own course and has encouraged them to compete for 
scant federal resources. On Sunday, the president extended social distancing 
guidelines through April as public health officials warned the death toll could 
exceed 100,000. 

   Politically, the strategy may be working for the first-term Republican 
president. With the election just seven months away, Trump's favorable ratings 
are ticking up, even if his numbers have fallen short of past presidents during 
times of crisis. Yet the GOP's loyalty will almost certainly be tested in the 
weeks ahead as the virus spreads from the blue-state coastal communities deeper 
into red-state middle America. 

   Democrats like Garcetti fear the politics that are shaping conflicting 
pandemic responses will have real-world consequences far more important than 
the next election. 

   "I do worry that making this a partisan issue will kill more people in 
redder states," the Los Angeles mayor said in an interview. "There is no way to 
keep this out of your city."

   In Mississippi, Reeves has adopted many social distancing measures such as 
limiting groups to 10 people, even if he's resisted some of the most aggressive 
steps. In an interview late last week, the Republican governor reiterated his 
opposition to a stay-at-home order, adding that he's heeding the guidance of 
state health officials and Vice President Mike Pence himself, who told him 
directly during a recent conversation that the Trump administration is not 
recommending a blanket shutdown.

   Reeves dismissed those who think he's not doing enough as enemies of Trump 
who "don't like the fact that I'm a conservative and I'm willing to pray."

   He warned that extended social distancing orders could cause a more 
dangerous fallout than the pandemic by destroying the nation's economy.

   "I don't think there's any doubt that if the United States found themselves 
in a severe depression with 20% to 30% unemployment that the abject poverty 
that could create could lead to more health problems than this particular virus 
is causing," Reeves said. 

   He added: "One size doesn't fit all in this country."

   No nation has more documented cases of the deadly virus than the United 
States, which surpassed 125,000 total infections and 2,200 related deaths over 
the weekend.

   The partisan divide in infections and responses is difficult to ignore.

   All 50 states have reported cases, but the seven with the most infections 
are led by Democrats. New York may offer a cautionary tale for other states: 
The state reported its first case on March 1 and surpassed 52,000 infections 
and 730 deaths in less than a month. 

   The bottom six states in total cases are rural states led by Republicans. 
Numbers have been escalating virtually everywhere, however, particularly in 
more populous red states like Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas, which reported 
more than 7,200 cases and 175 deaths combined as of Sunday.

   Fifteen of the 21 states that have issued statewide stay-at-home orders so 
far are led by Democratic governors, according to Kaiser. The Republican-led 
holdouts include Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has so far agreed with 
Trump's preference for a more incremental approach in the premier swing state, 
suggesting that restrictive measures be put in place only in the hardest-hit 
counties.

   The GOP's resistance was perhaps best explained in recent days by Texas Lt. 
Gov. Dan Patrick, who told a Fox News audience that he would be willing to die 
if necessary to avoid severe social distancing measures that have essentially 
shut down local economies.

   There are exceptions, of course.

   Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has split with Trump over when 
normal life might resume. And Ohio's Republican governor, Mike DeWine, has been 
one of the most aggressive leaders in either party, banning spectators from 
sporting events the first week of March. He was among the first governors in 
the nation to close public schools.

   Aggressive steps by DeWine and others, however, have been complicated by 
Trump's inconsistent rhetoric. After repeatedly downplaying the threat at 
first, the Republican president adopted a more serious tone before suddenly 
suggesting last week that the worst could be over by Easter, which is April 12. 
He has now reversed that view, calling it an "aspiration," with the extension 
of the social distancing guidelines.

   Trump has also engaged in a war of words with Democratic governors in key 
states, where elected officials have openly complained about the lack of 
federal assistance to stem a dangerous shortage of coronavirus tests and 
medical equipment. 

   Late last week, Trump told Pence, "don't call the woman in Michigan" --- 
referring to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is considered a potential vice 
presidential pick for the ultimate Democratic nominee. Trump dubbed her as 
"Gretchen 'Half' Whitmer" on Twitter, claiming that she's "way in over her 
head."

   At the same time, the Trump administration began to contemplate a plan to 
encourage increased economic activity in areas where infections are low, which 
is largely in Republican-led states at the moment. That, too, appeared to be 
sidelined by the president's new view that fatalities could reach 100,000 or 
more. 

   Many conservatives welcome the president's preference to loosen restrictions.

   "They have no right to tell me I need to stay in my house. They cannot 
impose a travel ban on me. They can't. it's unconstitutional," said Texas-based 
activist Mark Meckler, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots who now leads the 
Convention of States Project.

   Meckler began conversations in recent days with other grassroots 
conservatives leaders to explore the possibility of filing lawsuits to block 
some of the more aggressive social distancing measures. In the meantime, he's 
encouraging like-minded conservatives to embrace "peaceful resistance."

   "I'm not going along with it," Meckler said. "It doesn't mean we won't be 
smart, but we don't want to be sheep."

   Meanwhile, the numbers are shooting up in California, which has reported 
more than 5,000 infections and 100 deaths.

   Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti has assigned teams of city workers to ensure 
non-essential local businesses are complying with shut down orders. He is 
empowered to shut off their water and power if necessary, and the California 
Democrat has authorized the police to arrest those who continue to resist.

   Garcetti said there have been no shutoffs or arrests so far and predicts 
that "99 out of 100 will comply." 

   He also offered a dire message to Republicans who have resisted similar 
steps: "In the projections, you could see this taking tens of thousands of 
lives in America or millions. You chose. But I don't think anybody wants the 
second to be on their hands."


(KR)

 
 
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