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April 14, 2020

States launch efforts to ease social distancing measures

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    Governors in several states on Monday announced they are launching working groups to develop regional plans to ease social distancing measures and reopen local economies, as the number of reported deaths from the new coronavirus in the United States topped 23,000.

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    US Covid-19 cases surpass 580K, death toll tops 23K

    As of Tuesday morning, U.S. officials had reported 580,878 cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, in the country—up from 555,371 cases as of Monday morning.

    Officials as of Tuesday morning also had reported 23,607 U.S. deaths linked to the new coronavirus—up from 22,056 deaths reported as of Monday morning.

    States come together to determine when to ease social distancing measures

    Across the country, governors in more than 40 states have issued so-called "stay-at-home orders," closed non-essential businesses, and put other social distancing measures in place to help contain the new coronavirus' spread. Currently, the Trump administration recommends that Americans follow CDC's social distancing guidelines through April 30.

    President Trump has indicated that his administration is considering whether to lift those guidelines, at least in certain areas of the country, starting May 1. Public health experts have cautioned that reopening businesses and easing social distancing measures too soon could cause a resurgence of Covid-19 cases in the country.

    In light of those discussions, a group of governors from seven Eastern states and a group of governors from three Western states on Monday announced they are working together to develop plans to gradually lift social distancing requirements and reopen local economies when certain metrics indicate it is safe to do so.

    Governors from the group of East coast states—which includes Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—said they plan to coordinate on efforts to lift their social distancing requirements because many of their states' residents cross state lines to shop and work. Public health and state economic officials involved in the working group have not yet set any deadlines for easing the requirements, but New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) on Monday said he expects the group to take action in the coming weeks. Officials also said the group could grow to include other states.

    Separately, governors from the group of West coast states—which includes California, Oregon, and Washington—on Monday released a plan for how they will ease their social distancing requirements. The plan outlines an incremental approach to lifting the requirements and reopening businesses that will be informed by data and health authorities.  The plan contained few other details, but the governors said they will continue discussing the "regional pact to recovery" in coming days.

    However, as state officials are considering their next steps, they've raised some lingering questions and concerns, such as the country's lack of testing resources posing a challenge for easing restrictions on businesses, schools, and public transportation. State officials have noted that more widespread testing is needed to safely loosen such restrictions.

    Trump says he has the 'absolute authority' to lift social distancing measures

    The governors announced the launch of their working groups a day before Trump was scheduled to announce a White House task force intended to examine whether the Trump administration should extend its social distancing guidelines beyond April 30.

    Trump during a White House press briefing on Monday said he has the "absolute authority" to ease social distancing measures across the United States. "When somebody's president of the United States, the authority is total. And that's the way it's got … to be. It's total. … And the governors know that," Trump said. He added that states "can't do anything without approval of the president of the United States."

    However, legal experts have said state officials ultimately have control over when to relax their social distancing measures. According to legal experts, the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives states the authority to regulate public welfare and police citizens, which means states have the power to order citizens to return to their jobs, resume public transportation, and reopen government buildings and local businesses.

    Robert Chesney, a professor of national security law at the University of Texas, said Trump would not be able to issue national guidance that overrides state-mandated social distancing measures, including stay-at-home orders.

    "This is Federalism 101: The president can advocate to his heart's content, but he can't actually commandeer the state governments to make them change their policies," Chesney explained. "He has no such inherent authority, nor is there any federal statute that purports to give him such authority" (Green, Axios, 4/13; Wharton, Los Angeles Times, 4/13; Groppe, USA Today, 4/13; White, Politico, 4/13; Wolfe, Reuters, 4/14; Holland/Bartz, Reuters, 4/13; Ewing, NPR, 4/14; New York Times, 4/14).

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