Liberals like to say that what the country needs most right now is a centralized response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But that isn’t obvious. Yes, the federal government should be doing a much better job of providing clear and intelligent public health guidelines, organizing testing, and making resources available for contract tracing and other measures at the state level. But a pandemic that waxes and wanes in severity over time and at different rates in different regions of a continent-wide nation would seem to be a crisis for which a government with a long, rich tradition of federalism would be quite well suited. Let states (and regions within states) lock down, open up, and regulate public spaces as conditions demand and permit. A combination of flexibility and practical wisdom would seem to be much preferable to a “one size fits all” approach.
Yet this isn’t what we’ve seen. Instead of smart federalism, we’ve gotten dumb federalism, with many states actively denying reality by refusing to undertake any meaningful response to the pandemic at all, and citizens often responding with noncompliance to those states that have tried to do better. The results have been predictable, with regions that have imposed the fewest restrictions suffering the most severe outbreaks. In the most alarming cases of all, Americans are refusing to accept the truth about COVID-19 even as they draw their dying breaths.
But it’s not as if states that have taken the threat more seriously are doing a great job either. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio may blame ignorance about the virus for the appalling number of deaths that took place on their watches last spring, but what’s their excuse for allowing the teachers union in the city to get its way on shutting down public schools when restaurants, bars, and other businesses where the risk of transmission is much greater are permitted to remain open? And how about California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s violation of his own state’s public health guidelines on mask wearing?