Nation’s governors get tested for a virus that is testing them
By Manny Fernandez, Rick Rojas, Shawn Hubler and Mike Baker
Governors have always been judged on their disaster responses, but the coronavirus wreaking havoc across the country these days does not recede like floodwaters and cannot be tamed by calling out the National Guard.
The states’ chief executives have been tested for the very virus that keeps testing them — politically, personally, logistically. And they have been forced onto the national and global stage in a way few governors have ever endured — an unending and very public test on a highly scientific and ever-shifting subject with the lives of their constituents, the economies of their states and their political careers at stake.
Tate Reeves has been the governor of Mississippi for just under six months. During that time, he has had a very full plate: deadly tornadoes, the flooding of the capital city of Jackson, violence in the state prisons, a vote to take down the flag with the Confederate battle emblem.
But the coronavirus has eclipsed all of that, and in recent days, the virus was threatening the statehouse and his own house a few blocks away.
Reeves, 46, was tested for the virus, as were his wife and three daughters. The tests came back negative, but many of his colleagues at the Mississippi State Capitol were not as lucky — the virus has infected 26 lawmakers, including the lieutenant governor and the House speaker. Cases have surged statewide — 674 new cases were announced Wednesday, 703 on Thursday — and intensive care units at many of the state’s largest hospitals are near capacity.
“I have taken to replacing sleeping with praying,” Reeves, an accountant before he got into politics, told reporters.
The pandemic has put Reeves, a Republican, and many of America’s governors of both parties under a spotlight for which none of their aides and consultants have a playbook. Interviews with aides, advisers and others involved in the coronavirus response efforts of seven governors revealed just how much the crisis has upended their offices, their lives, and how they approach the job. For some, it has magnified their weaknesses and drawn out tensions even within their own parties — and their own kitchen cabinets.
The crisis reached a boiling point this month for some governors, as the virus spread and deaths increased in a swath of states that governors had reopened. Reversing course — a practice governors prefer not to be seen doing — has become routine in the age of coronavirus.
Reeves had been eager previously to lift the restrictions that had stalled Mississippi’s economy and had hoped to have the whole state open by July 1. Now, he has been warning residents of a “slow-moving disaster” and made masks mandatory in 13 of the hardest-hit counties.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, was adamant for weeks that government could not mandate masks. Just before the Fourth of July weekend, as cases and hospitalizations skyrocketed, he swiftly reversed, ordering all Texans to cover their faces in most situations.
Minutes before the announcement, he held a conference call with lawmakers, many of them irate Republicans who have grown weary of his mandates, flip-flops and rushed, behind-the-scenes calls.
“He is doing all this on his own, as far as I can tell, with little-to-no input,” said state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a conservative from the Fort Worth suburbs who was on the call and said lawmakers weren’t permitted to ask any questions. “It’s a one-way conversation. The last time I checked, we didn’t elect a king in Texas.”
The seven governors whose crisis moments were reviewed by The New York Times — Reeves of Mississippi; Abbott of Texas; Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington state; Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida; Gov. Gavin Newsom of California; Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas; and Gov. David Ige of Hawaii — have been scrambling in ways large and small, in ways seen and unseen by the public.
Inslee, a Democrat, managed the crisis without the guidance of some members of his staff on various days last week, including his chief of staff. They had to take a day off for furloughs — a requirement as the state grapples with financial shortfalls caused by the pandemic.
Abbott has had his deputy chief of staff talk to the head of the Texas Restaurant Association to relay the latest developments, but DeSantis in Florida — whose wife, Casey, gave birth in late March to their third child — often gets on the line himself.
“I don’t get a heads-up from the governor that he’s going to call, he just calls,” said David M. Kerner, the mayor of Palm Beach County. “At first it caught me off guard.”
Kelly, the Democratic governor of Kansas, has kept her circle of pandemic advisers small, relying largely on the expertise of her top health official.
Hawaii’s Democratic governor, Ige, was criticized, according to local news reports, for keeping his inner circle too small by excluding the lieutenant governor, who happened to be a practicing emergency room physician. Early in the pandemic, Ige’s administration was reluctant to expand testing, but Lt. Gov. Josh Green wanted an aggressive expansion. In an interview, Ige attributed the tension to “misunderstanding and miscommunication,” and said the lieutenant governor has been continuously involved in the response.
DeSantis, who has been criticized for reopening Florida too fast and for not issuing a statewide mask mandate, was perhaps the most mobile of the seven governors, leaving home frequently to attend public events. He held three news conferences in three cities in a single week, often wearing a mask that he slipped off when he spoke at the microphone. Inslee, by comparison, has taken to wearing his mask even during video news conferences, his voice muffled as a result.
Without a coordinated federal response, governors find themselves in an awkward role, appearing to wield much of the decision-making around managing the crisis, but also expected to hear out and satisfy the wishes of mayors, restaurant owners, emergency medical workers and everyone else. The result: all sorts of new coronavirus committees and task forces — and bureaucratic snarls.
Even with so much advice, governors seemed to be making it up as they go.
In California, Newsom awakens early with his children on most days and starts emailing his staff by 6 a.m. He dons a mask and works not out of the domed Capitol in Sacramento, but out of the California Office of Emergency Services command center, a complex in the suburb of Carmichael, where he and his family live.
Mornings are for meetings and prep for the noon livestream news conference that Newsom has done almost daily since the start of the pandemic. The Capitol press corps calls the news conferences “Newsom at Noon” and for a while some swapped bingo cards with his go-to phrases: “Bend the curve.” “Meet the moment.” “Localism is determinative.”
California acted early to impose a stay-at-home order but the virus, after appearing under control, is on the upswing. That is no surprise to Newsom, who says that the early shutdown helped the state prepare.
“It bought us time to build out our health care delivery system,” Newsom said in an interview this month.
For Reeves in Mississippi, who was sworn in Jan. 14, one of his challenges has been in publicly shifting his pandemic posture, from being eager to reopen the economy to urging caution and toughening restrictions.
He has spent much of his time in recent days ringing alarm bells he had ignored for weeks, telling reporters Wednesday that the “situation that we have feared is upon us” and urging people to wear a mask and stay home as much as possible.
“He’s dealt with more emergencies than most elected officials deal with in their entire time in office, and this has been like no other,” said Pat Fontaine, who is the executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association and who has been in regular contact with the governor’s office.