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States move forward with coordinating coronavirus response after Trump backs down

Cuomo: New York is "still in the woods"
Cuomo: New York is "still in the woods" 01:45

President Trump's decision on Tuesday to back off his insistence that he would decide when states reopen their economies came after governors grew increasingly frustrated with the White House over his comments, and moved to coordinate their own efforts.

Ten governors, all but one of whom is a Democrat, have formed two multi-state coalitions on both coasts to determine how and when to ease restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus, planning that state officials say has begun in earnest.

The dispute between the states and the president began Monday, when Mr. Trump said he had the "total" authority to reopen the economy, even though individual governors issued orders for their states.

"When someone's the president of the United States, the authority is total," Mr. Trump said, a claim that flew in the face of constitutional delineations of power. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was among the governors who dismissed the president's comment, calling it "absurd" during an appearance Tuesday on "CBS This Morning."

"He has total authority to open up the economy — then why didn't he have authority to close the economy? Why did he leave it to the states and the governors to close it down?" Cuomo asked.

Mr. Trump walked back his inflammatory comments on Tuesday evening, saying "the governors are responsible" for reopening their economies. He said his administration would "authorize" governors "of each individual state to implement a reopening — and a very powerful reopening — plan of their state at a time and in a matter as most appropriate."

Even before the president conceded that states would take the lead, governors in the Northeast and on the West Coast had begun developing plans to gradually reopen sectors of the economy while preventing a resurgence of infections.

Northeastern coalition

The governors of seven northeastern states announced Monday that they would join forces to develop plans to begin lifting restrictions on individuals and businesses.

The northeastern alliance — which for now includes New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Massachusetts — could expand in the coming days to include other New England states like Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is the only Republican currently in the coalition.

Cuomo's office said the group consists of one health expert, one economic development expert and the respective chief of staff from each state who "work together to develop a fully integrated regional framework to gradually lift the states' stay at home orders while minimizing the risk of increased spread of the virus."

"Now it is time to start opening the valve slowly and carefully while watching the infection rate meter so we don't trigger a second wave of new infections," Cuomo said in a statement. "This is not a light switch that we can just flick on and everything goes back to normal — we have to come up with a smart, consistent strategy to restart the systems we shut down and get people back to work."

George Helmy, chief of staff to New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, described "rigorous and regular" conversations among the leaders of northeastern states that begin around 6 a.m. and continue well past 11 p.m. over text, email and quick phone calls. Helmy said the council has begun developing plans to address a range of issues that come with easing restrictions.

"The first question is defining the date, but you can't define that until you've sussed out the plan," Helmy told CBS News. "And that means figuring out testing — how, who, where, when — [and] tracing: how do we trace these people, how do we do contact tracing and what do we need to do that?" 

Virus Outbreak New Jersey
The downtown New York City skyline looms over pedestrians wearing masks due to COVID-19 concerns on Friday, April 10, 2020, in Jersey City, New Jersey. John Minchillo / AP

Uniformity in policy is a priority for state leaders, particularly given the number of people in the New York metro area who cross state lines on a daily basis. Helmy stressed that planning for how to reopen the economy is just as important as setting a specific date.

"What sectors of our economy are we opening first? What does that mean for children and day care?" he said. "What's the best policy for social distancing at restaurants? What's the proper capacity at bars? Will we have to wear masks on public transit for the foreseeable future?"

Only once the governors and the council hammer out those issues and a host of others, including how to address a likely uptick in cases, will the states move forward, Helmy said.

Another state official familiar with the plans told CBS News that frustration with the White House had been growing over the president's public comments about reopening the country. Many governors took steps before the federal government did to either encourage or mandate social distancing and order widespread closures, and some didn't appreciate being told by the president that he'll take the lead on reopening, according to this official.

"We're working collaboratively where we can" with the White House, the official said, "but certain comments questioning the actions or the purview of the governors in the states is making governors frustrated."

The official acknowledged the decision to coordinate efforts was made easier by the fact that most of the governors involved are Democrats.

"It doesn't hurt," the official said.

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said in a statement Monday that "working as a regional coalition to make the right decisions will lead to the best public health results for all of our residents."

In an interview with WBUR on Tuesday, Delaware Governor John Carney said he decided to take a regional approach so that he could learn from other states' response to the coronavirus, and so that the region could coordinate its recovery.

"We've got some really smart people, very thoughtful governors led by Governor Cuomo, who's put the group together," Carney said. "It's important to know what they're doing, when they're doing it and to try to do it cooperatively or in a coordinated way if we can."

The Western States Pact

The Democratic governors of California, Oregon and Washington also announced a "Western States Pact" on Monday to "work together on a shared approach for reopening our economies — one that identifies clear indicators for communities to restart public life and business."

In their joint statement, the governors set four goal posts for taming the virus: ensuring vulnerable populations such as those in senior homes are protected, keeping hospitals well equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE) to deal with any capacity surges, mitigating non-direct impacts such as poverty and lack of healthcare, and pairing any lifts of restrictions with a system to track and trace the virus amongst the population.

The pact states that "health outcomes and science — not politics — will guide these decisions," and that they need to see a decline in the rate of the spread of the virus before any modifications. California Governor Gavin Newsom said on Tuesday that additional Western states could be added. 

Oregon Governor Kate Brown characterized the pact as a continuation of the work the three states have been doing since the pandemic's onset, adding that she has been texting with Washington Governor Jay Inslee consistently, sharing information and best practices. 

"We certainly have been giving each other the heads up. We have made the very difficult decisions in terms of how and what to shut down. That's no different than what we have done in other circumstances, for example wildfire," she said at her press conference on Tuesday. "I think you'll see a higher level of coordination and alignment in terms of how we take action."

However, the pact's four targets serve only as a base framework, while the individual governors are still crafting and releasing their own state-specific plans.  

On Tuesday, Newsom laid out his own six-point plan to reopen the state and modify his "stay-at-home" order. Among the indicators needed are the state's ability to monitor communities through testing and contact tracing and looking at the floor plans and ability of businesses and schools to have physical distancing. 

Newsom also floated the idea of taking temperatures of people that enter schools or businesses, and staggering the amount of people that come in.

"There's no light switch here. I would argue that it's more like a dimmer," he added. "This toggling back-and-forth between more restrictive and less restrictive measures. More individual accountability, more individual responsibility."

Brown released her own framework Tuesday, saying that the state could take a geographical approach to reopening, but they first have to slow the spread and maintain the PPE supply. 

"If we move too quickly, we will see a spike in cases that could lead to an overwhelmed hospital system and unnecessary deaths," Governor Brown warned. "The best path forward is a cautious one."

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