David A. Graham: The public is astonishingly united
Yet states led by governors of both parties have moved forward on plans to reopen, even those where the COVID-19 caseload continues to rise. Take North Carolina, where Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, announced a new phase of opening this week—even though the number of coronavirus diagnoses in the state is still increasing. The Republican leader in the state Senate, who has been a proponent of reopening, praised the move.
“I’m glad the governor has responded to the calls of senators, small-business owners, and unemployed workers to let them get back to work,” state Senator Phil Berger said in a statement. But he added: “It seems strange that it was unsafe to reopen last week, but it’s safe to reopen now with worse numbers.” Berger meant this as a question about why Cooper wasn’t moving faster, but it is perhaps a stronger argument in the opposite direction: Why is he moving at all?
As the White House has pointed out, sometimes with great frustration, policy makers have to balance concerns that public-health officials don’t, including the economy and public opinion. Yet neither of these makes an especially strong case for reopening.
President Donald Trump has issued strong calls for reopening, saying that doing so will revive an economy knocked flat by the pandemic. The problem is that there’s not much evidence that simply dropping restrictions will save the economy, even as it does create health risks. States that have loosened the rules haven’t seen economic activity bounce back to anywhere near pre-crisis levels.
At a Senate hearing this week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin echoed his boss’s line, saying there’s a danger of permanent damage to the economy if businesses don’t reopen now. But Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell differed from Mnuchin, saying that economic and public-health concerns can’t be separated. “The No. 1 thing, of course, is people believing that it’s safe to go back to work so they can go out,” he said. “That’s what it will take for people to regain confidence.”
Politicians seldom take major, risky steps without knowing that public opinion is behind them, and that makes the decisions by governors to reopen all the stranger. As I have written, public opinion is astonishingly united behind social-distancing measures. Across party lines and geographic regions, Americans think that caution is prudent and restrictions are smart. They believe wearing a face mask is more about public health than personal choice. And they hold these views even, or especially, when it means personal sacrifice.
It is true that the partisan divide on anti-coronavirus measures has been growing in recent days. Yet what this polling suggests is not the typical Democrats-versus-Republicans split, but instead a difference of opinion within the Republican Party. And even then, governors of both parties are, in many specific instances, embracing a minority opinion within their party.