#politics | Political unity detours into division over coronavirus

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For a moment, everyone seemed to be on the same side in the fight against the coronavirus — the side of flattening the curve.

Public health experts and doctors were guiding decisions. State and local leaders of all political stripes shut down bars, restaurants and large gatherings to slow the spread. President Donald Trump, parroting his top infectious disease advisers, asked Americans to drastically change their habits for 15-days and warned the economic sacrifice could last until July or August.

“We’re not thinking in terms of recession,” Trump said on March 17. “We’re thinking in terms of the virus.”

But as the end of that 15-day social distancing period approaches, there’s a growing chorus of conservatives questioning whether the economic toll of these government restrictions is worth it. Some, like Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have gone so far as to suggest senior citizens risk their well-being, if not their lives, to preserve the economy. Even Trump chimed in, suddenly proposing that the nation end its social isolation on Easter.

Now, as the death toll from the disease surpasses 1,000 and with experts predicting the worst is still ahead, government leaders at every level are divided on how to move forward. It’s a chasm that has grown increasingly partisan, with Democrats calling for medical experts to dictate policy and Republicans insisting that the health of businesses be addressed.

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The fissure should be familiar to anyone who has watched the debate on climate change roil local, state and national politics, pitting Democrats and scientists against the GOP and business interests. And just like on climate change, Florida will be a closely watched test case.

Here, Gov. Ron DeSantis has resisted calls for a statewide shutdown, making Florida the only state with more 1,500 than coronavirus cases where residents aren’t required to stay home. Instead, a patchwork of counties and cities, mostly run by Democrats, have ordered their own local shutdowns.

DeSantis said he is not prepared to keep people from earning a paycheck if he doesn’t think they’ll contribute to the spread, pointing to the number of counties with few or no coronavirus cases.

But health professional warn there isn’t enough testing to accurately gauge the reach of the virus. Many experts predict Florida, more than most states, will see its hospitals overwhelmed with older patients. One of the country’s worst outbreaks is already in South Florida.

In a letter to DeSantis, 10 Democratic members of Congress pleaded with the Republican governor to order residents to shelter in place, warning that the human and economic costs will be far greater if no action is taken. “We cannot leave this decision to county and local governments,” they wrote. “We need your leadership.”

Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden, the leading Democratic nominee for president, called out DeSantis on Wednesday for siding against “science-based action.”

But DeSantis continued this week to dismiss the advice of Democrats and experts, insisting that there isn’t data to guide this unprecedented pandemic. He questioned the effectiveness of school closures on Wednesday and said governors who have shut down their states are taking away people’s paychecks without any evidence it will slow the virus’ spread.

“It’s kind of like a real life experiment,” DeSantis said. “We’re going to see how effective some of this stuff is.”

DeSantis said his more measured approach was lauded as “thoughtful” and “data driven” by Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator. She has said no such thing, however, at least not publicly. Asked about the remarks, a DeSantis spokeswoman pointed to comments Birx made Tuesday in the White House briefing room that simply supported the governor’s mandate that travelers from the New York area self-quarantine for two weeks.

The politics of coronavirus have played out a little differently in Hillsborough County. The most vocal critic of Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s plan to ask residents to stay at home had been a fellow Democrat, County Commission Chairman Les Miller.

Miller called Castor’s plan to proceed with a citywide order unwise and criticized her rhetoric as irresponsible and panic-inducing. He has been backed up by Commissioner Sandy Murman, a Republican, who has voiced concern for the potential damage it could do to local businesses.

“I really don’t want to rush it,” Murman said at a Monday county emergency policy group meeting. “It’s got to be right.”

By Thursday, a compromise measure brought all three politicians to the same place: they all voted for a safer at home policy coupled with a curfew.

“It’s time to lay our armor aside,” Miller told reporters late Wednesday. “The main objective is…to keep everybody safe.”

Meanwhile, the three Democratic mayors along the Interstate-4 corridor have coordinated their responses with staff discussing how best to implement stay-at-home orders that mirror one another and are rolled out in a tight timeframe.

On Thursday, Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman posted a video urging residents to follow the directive of their respective cities.

“This isn’t about politics, it’s about community,” Kriseman said.

So far the deepening divisions have not derailed Congress’ ability to hammer out a coronavirus response package. The White House and negotiators for the House and Senate reached agreement early Wednesday morning on a $2 trillion stimulus bill, though it has yet to pass both chambers.

Angst about the government restrictions on business grew louder in Republican circles last week as the fallout from the partial shutdown began to manifest itself throughout the global economy. Fears of spreading the disease forced people inside and cancelled events, bringing spending to a halt almost overnight. Stocks crashed and millions of workers are uncertain about their future

Some economists project that the U.S. could see around 3 million new unemployment insurance claims when figures are released for the week of March 15-21. That would be around 12 times as many as the previous week.

Against this backdrop, some conservatives started to wonder out loud if the government was intervening too much. Never mind the drastic steps needed to “flatten the curve” in China, Italy and other countries. Patrick, the Texas lieutenant governor, became the poster child for this growing Republican opinion when he told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that senior citizens “we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country.” Conservative commentator Glenn Beck made similar remarks Tuesday on his radio show.

“No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival, in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ ” Patrick said. “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”

Instead of quashing these attitudes, Trump breathed life into them. In a clear break from his own health advisers, Trump said Monday that the new goal was to open the economy up by Easter on April 12.

“We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” he said.

On the other side are Democrats like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said he is willing to shut down the economy for the rest of the year if public health experts say it will saves lives.

“My mother is not expendable,” Cuomo tweeted Tuesday morning. “Your mother is not expendable. We will not put a dollar figure on human life. We can have a public health strategy that is consistent with an economic one. No one should be talking about social Darwinism for the sake of the stock market.”

Times Staff Writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report.

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