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For some states, coronavirus restrictions spark backlash against government intervention

The governor of the state with the greatest number of novel coronavirus cases in the U.S. issued a blunt warning last week to less densely populated parts of the country hoping to avoid New York’s fate.

“It’s a false comfort to say well, we are a rural community, we don’t have the density of New York City,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said at a press conference Thursday. 

New York may be home to the nation’s largest city, but the state also has rural counties with “more cows than people,” Cuomo said, as well as suburbs “comparable to suburban communities all across this country.”

“In many ways New York State is a microcosm of the United States. And that’s why I believe it’s going to be illustrative for the rest of this nation as to what’s going to happen,” he said.

Already, Cuomo’s warning appears to be playing out. The coronavirus was initially largely confined to coastal states like New York, California and Washington when it reached the U.S. in late January.

But cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, have been cropping up with greater frequency elsewhere, especially in parts of the Southwest and South. Louisiana has developed one of the highest per-capita rates of infection in the country. The virus is also on the rise in the Midwest; Michigan now has the third-highest number of coronavirus cases of any state, trailing New York and New Jersey. 

Analiese Zaleski sews hospital masks, as the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, on day one of turning the Detroit Sewn facility into a production facility for hospital masks in Pontiac, Michigan, U.S., March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook - RC2XPF9SS4FS

Workers sew hospital masks at a converted production facility for hospital masks in Pontiac, Michigan, on March 23, 2020. The coronavirus is spreading quickly in areas of the Midwest and other parts of the country that did not have high numbers of cases before. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

The public health crisis has forced governors to step in with unprecedented restrictions in more politically moderate and conservative states that are not used to this type of strong government intervention more commonly associated with more liberal coastal states like California. 

In Minnesota, a largely rural, left-leaning swing state that has fewer than 900 reported cases, Gov. Tim Walz issued a two-week stay-at-home order on March 25. The directive from Walz, a member of the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, was praised by some even though it brought short-term economic pain.

The restaurants, the retail establishments, the truck stop near my house off the freeway, some of these things are just shells of what they would normally be,” said Gregg Peppin, a Republican consultant who lives in the Twin Cities region.

Republican state lawmakers criticized Walz for acting unilaterally to stop the virus in ways that they said would hurt small businesses, rural communities and other groups.

And aspects of the stay-at-home order sparked controversy. Peppin said many Minnesotans took issue with a provision creating a telephone hotline and email address that residents can use to report suspected violations of the order.

Reporting on others “really does run counter to the ‘Minnesota nice’ theme that we so cherish here,” Peppin said. “Yes, people understand that we should take precautions, and people understand that we need to do the best job we can on social distancing. But this is a little big brotherish.”

Elsewhere, the new sense of urgency from state leaders has put residents on notice in places like Virginia, where Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 30 that will remain in effect through June 10.

“I think it’s definitely changed from a short term, ‘Ok let’s make sure we have supplies for two weeks,’ to now thinking more long term,” said Mallory McCune, a student in her final year of law school at the University of Richmond in Virginia. 

“Not everything is shut down” in Richmond, McCune added. Residents are still able to shop for groceries and get exercise outdoors. But the crisis is now starting to affect “long-term decision making on living situations, job situations,” she said.

As recently as March 23, only a handful of states had instituted some version of a statewide stay-at-home order, according to a New York Times map, and they were mostly clustered along the coasts. 

Now, 38 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have ordered residents to stay at home except for “essential” activities to slow the spread of the virus. 

The response from states comes as the Trump administration has been stepping up its own efforts to curtail the coronavirus. The pandemic has infected roughly 350,000 people nationwide, and resulted in more than 10,000 deaths.

The pandemic has brought much of the economy to a halt. The national unemployment rate climbed nearly one point to 4.4. percent in March, according to data released Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the report only included data through the first half of the month, so it did not take into account the roughly 10 million jobless claims filed in the last two weeks of March. 

Experts predicted the national unemployment rate could reach double digits this month. During the Great Recession, the unemployment rate was at 9 percent or higher for 30 consecutive months — from April 2009 to September 2011 — but only hit 10 percent or higher once, in October 2009.

As the economic outlook worsens, the public’s patience with restrictive government measures is being tested in parts of the country that aren’t used to seeing heavy regulation. 

A shopper picks over the few items remaining in the meat section, as people stock up on supplies amid coronavirus fears, at an Austin, Texas, grocery store on March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Brad Brooks

A shopper picks over the few items remaining in the meat section, as people stock up on supplies amid coronavirus fears, at an Austin, Texas, grocery store on March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Brad Brooks

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, for weeks resisted pressure from Democrats and health care groups to approve a statewide stay-at-home order. Abbott relented last week, issuing an executive order that bans non-essential travel. 

Abbott was careful not to label it a “shelter-in-place” order, however. Cuomo in New York and President Donald Trump at the national level have also resisted issuing orders using language that suggests a total lockdown or quarantine. Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis initially resisted pressure to ban large group gatherings, but finally backed down last week after being criticized for allowing beaches in the state to remain open at a time when the virus was starting to take off in the U.S. and Florida, too, was experiencing an increase in infections.

Texans have abided by the rules so far, said Bill Miller, a lobbyist in the state capital of Austin. “They’ve given up their rights willingly for the greater good. That’s where we’re at today,” Miller said. But public attitudes could shift if law enforcement authorities begin aggressively enforcing the rules, he said.

“There’s not a lot of cops walking around writing tickets and enforcing” social distancing guidelines, he said. “If there’s an enforcement mechanism that’s interpreted as repression, that could change, and it could change fast.”