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A new Trump vs. California battle looms over reopening an economy battered by coronavirus

Closed businesses line Winston Street in the wholesale district of Los Angeles. Gov. Gavin Newsom and others are beginning to talk about how the economy could restart.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

California could find itself again at odds with the Trump administration, this time on when and how to lift the unprecedented social distancing restrictions that many credit with helping contain the spread of the coronavirus in the state.

California has seen markedly fewer deaths than other hot spots like New York and New Jersey, and officials have said its early embrace of stay-at-home rules is one reason why.

Now, Gov. Gavin Newsom and others are beginning to talk about how the economy could restart. But President Trump on Monday claimed that he has that power, rather than local and state officials.

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Trump’s claims

“When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total,” Trump said at Monday’s coronavirus briefing. “It’s total. And the governors know that.”

Trump also tweeted that reopening the economy “is the decision of the President,” and not local or state officials, who shouldered the responsibility of closing most schools, shops and nonessential services.

Asked during the briefing which provisions would authorize him to override local authorities, Trump was vague. “Numerous provisions,” he said. “We’ll give you a legal brief if you want.”

On Tuesday, Trump doubled down in a tweet, insinuating that local governors need too much from the federal government to go their own way.

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Trump’s assertion about authority has been disputed by experts. And there are concerns that lifting restrictions too early could be a disaster for the economy if a new wave of illness were to require another shutdown.

States collaborate

On Monday, Newsom and his counterparts in Washington and Oregon announced “a regional pact to recovery” from the coronavirus crisis and agreed to work together to develop a plan to lift restrictions on daily life and reopen economies along the West Coast.

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“COVID-19 doesn’t follow state or national boundaries,” Newsom, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement. “It will take every level of government, working together, and a full picture of what’s happening on the ground.”

The governors broadly described a few basic principles they agreed to follow in developing strategies to return some level of normalcy to their states:

  • Use data
  • Prioritize health over politics
  • Work in coordination with other states and local communities
  • Protect vulnerable populations
  • Ensure the states have enough equipment and hospital workers to provide adequate care
  • Develop a strategy to test, track and isolate cases

“We need to see a decline in the rate of spread of the virus before large-scale reopening, and we will be working in coordination to identify the best metrics to guide this,” the governors said.

More details will be released Tuesday.

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President Trump claims he ‘calls the shots’ on coronavirus re-openings, but governors on both coasts are banding together to decide when to ease stay-at-home orders.

Flash points ahead

A shared regional strategy is more difficult for Trump to override than individual state plans, said Dana Williamson, a Democratic political strategist and former Cabinet secretary to Gov. Jerry Brown.

“It makes it harder for the president to upend something that is already in place when several states are in agreement with it,” Williamson said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already pushed back against Trump deciding when states can reopen.

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“We don’t have a king,” Cuomo said on NBC’s “Today. “We have a president. That was a big decision. We ran away from having a king, and George Washington was president, not King Washington. So the president doesn’t have total authority.

“If he ordered me to reopen in a way that would endanger the public health of the people of my state, I wouldn’t do it. And we would have a constitutional challenge between the state and the federal government, and that would go into the courts and that would be the worst possible thing he could do at this moment,” the governor told CNN on Tuesday.

California already has clashed with Trump on a variety of issues including immigration, the environment, wildfire policy and homelessness.

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On Monday, Newsom said he believed the cooperative approach would be successful.

“I have all the confidence in the world moving forward that we will maintain that collaborative spirit in terms of the decision-making that we make here within the state of California as it relates to a road map for recovery and a road map to get back to some semblance of normalcy,” Newsom said.

Reopening slowly

Life is still a long way from returning to pre-pandemic norms, but some scientists believe parts of the economy could return in the coming months under the right circumstances, public health experts said.

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“Is it wearing masks? Probably. Is it continuing to restrict large gatherings? Yeah, probably,” said Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist and infectious diseases expert at UC San Francisco. “Is it continuing to have older people stay home more than they would otherwise? Yeah, probably.

“When we return to work, do we all go back on the same day, or do we stagger that?” Rutherford asked.

A vaccine is not expected for 12 to 18 months, at the earliest. But widespread testing could be up and running in the next couple of months — both for the virus and for antibodies to show whether a person has been infected and now has some immunity.

Perhaps factories stagger shifts to prevent too many workers mixing with one another. Maybe manufacturing and construction are opened up first, Rutherford said, and then nonessential retail stores and, sometime after that, restaurants.

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“If you’re going to open the bars, you’re going to have to take out every other stool — I mean, I don’t know what the governor is going to decide,” Rutherford said. “And then maybe everybody who can telecommute would just sit tight for a while.”

Big concerts, sporting events and festivals are likely even further off.

As restrictions are eased, officials will need to monitor cases to see if coronavirus cases start to dramatically flare up again.

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Promising signs

California has recorded more than 24,000 confirmed cases and more than 730 deaths.

Still, the number of new coronavirus cases reported daily across California shows signs of flattening. And even hard-hit Los Angeles County, which saw 25 new deaths on Monday, reported only 239 new cases of the virus Monday, the lowest daily number since March 26.

“That’s a good thing,” said Barbara Ferrer, director of L.A. County Department of Public Health.

Los Angeles County has recorded more than 9,400 coronavirus cases and more than 320 deaths.

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Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services agency, said Monday the stay-at-home order and social distancing had slowed the spread of the virus, resulting in fewer hospitalizations than estimates predicted.


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