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Stupid Kills: The 5 Worst GOP Governors’ Responses to COVID-19

April 8, 2020
Stupid Kills: The 5 Worst GOP Governors’ Responses to COVID-19
Georgia's Governor Brian Kemp (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

As late as March 30, 15 states had issued neither stay-at-home orders nor ordered the closure of non-essential businesses. All 15 have Republican governors. Since then, most have finally taken too-little-too-late statewide measures.

In a target-rich environment, selecting (much less ranking) the five dumbest GOP governors is no easy task. But somebody has to do it. By focusing exclusively on their response to the COVID-19 crisis, the task becomes a bit easier.

With apologies to Greg Abbott and Jim Justice, here they are:

5. Kevin Stitt, Oklahoma

On Saturday night, March 14, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt tweeted out a photo of himself and his children at a crowded restaurant. “Eating with my kids and all my fellow Oklahomans at Collective OKC!” Stitt exulted, “It’s packed tonight!”

The next day, Stitt declared a statewide emergency “caused by the impending threat of COVID-19 to the people of this State and the public’s peace, health, and safety.” 

The emergency declaration covered, well, pretty much nothing other than authorizing state agencies to take certain actions. There was no stay-at-home order, no restriction on the size of meetings and assemblies, and no guidance of any kind to the people of Oklahoma other than “encouraging” them to utilize online options whenever possible in interacting with “agency services.”

Perhaps fearful that the order itself didn’t make it sufficiently clear that Oklahomans were being provided with absolutely no useful guidance of any kind, the governor’s office promptly removed any doubt. The very next day after the order was issued, Stitt’s chief of communications clarified the sweep of the order: 

 “The governor will continue to take his family out to dinner and to the grocery store without living in fear and encourages Oklahomans to do the same.” 

Got it, Oklahomans? Take the kids out to the crowd! Father knows best.

4. Tate Reeves, Mississippi

Poor Tate Reeves. He took his family on a trip to Paris and Barcelona in early March, just when the coronavirus pandemic was heating up, but had to return to the United States to get in under the wire before Donald Trump’s European travel ban kicked in.

Two days later, he declared a “state of emergency” in Mississippi.

About 10 days after that, Reeves issued an executive order directing Mississippians to avoid social contact and other non-essential gatherings of more than 10 people, prohibited bars and restaurants from serving more than 10 patrons at a time, and prohibited most visitors at health care facilities. It “recommended and encouraged,” but did not order, Mississippi businesses to work at home “to the maximum extent possible.”

And then the chaos began. The order provided not only that the measures be enacted statewide, but also that “any order, rule, regulation or action by any governing body, agency or political subdivision” imposing stricter restrictions was “suspended and unenforceable” during the life of the crisis.

In other words, while purporting to impose new restrictions, the statewide order actually weakened previously enacted restrictions in significant portions of the state.

“The governor’s actions are creating mass confusion and panic across the state,” said Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton. Nobody quite knows which guidelines they should follow, and which they can’t. Mayors across the state are “taking it upon themselves to clarify to their residents that curfews, restaurant bans, and stay-at-home orders remain in place.”

But don’t worry, Reeves has clarified it all: “If you feel that a statewide lockdown should be occurring, then you should put yourself on individual lockdown . . . [but] that is not the guidance we are getting from our experts.” Helpful.

After all, Reeves assured us, “Mississippi’s never going to be China. Mississippi’s never going to be North Korea.”

3. Kay Ivey, Alabama

By April 1, 35 Alabamans had died from the virus. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, the most cited source of COVID-19 modeling, projects a sharp spike in the Alabama death rate in just over two weeks, reaching over 300 deaths per day by April 19.

Alabama’s hospital resources are among the least prepared in the nation. The state has some 474 ICU beds available. IHME projects they will need 4,382. That’s about 1 ICU bed for every 10 patients.

As of April 3, Governor Kay Ivey still hadn’t issued a stay at home order. Why not? Her folksy explanation tells you all you need to know:

“Y’all, we are not Louisiana. Right now is not the time to order people to shelter in place.” 

True that. The time was much earlier. And Alabama ain’t Louisiana. It doesn’t have the reigning NCAA football national champion. And, as bad as Louisiana’s situation is, Alabama’s is much worse. IHME projects fewer than 75 deaths per day at the peak in Louisiana, in contrast to Alabama’s 300-plus. And Louisiana’s hospitals are projected to be only a few hundred beds short, as opposed to nearly 4,400 in Alabama.

Only on April 3, far too late to prevent a healthcare catastrophe in Alabama, did Ivey issue a stay-at-home order, effective the next day.

2. Ron DeSantis, Florida

Brimming with the most at-risk population in the nationseniors with underlying medical conditionsFlorida is a disaster waiting to happen, the only question is when. IHME estimates that Florida will have 175 COVID-19 deaths per day by early May. The state has about half the ICU beds it is projected to need.

For weeks, in the face of this thoroughly predictable crisis, Florida governor Ron DeSantis resisted issuing a statewide stay at home order, which he called “not advisable” because the virus supposedly wasn’t affecting “every corner of the state.” Never mind that this statement wasn’t true, and that the Florida numbers were artificially depressed due to lack of testing in most of the state.

Meanwhile, he watched thousands of young revelers crowd Florida beaches over spring break.

On April 1, DeSantis finally caved and issued his too-late stay-at-home order.  Granted, too late is better than never.  But eight hours after he issued the order, DeSantis quietly signed a second order that seriously undermined restrictions that already existed at local levels within the state.  The second order provided that the first one “shall supersede any conflicting official action or order issued by local officials in response to COVID-19.”

The second order actually weakened, not strengthened, existing restrictions in key areas throughout the state. For instance, the statewide order exempted attending all “religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship.” It also exempted those engaged in “recreational activities.” 

Many local orders and guidelines contained no such exemptions. Those local guidelines were therefore weakened or superseded entirely by the statewide order.

One local county commissioner reacted this way: “Our hospitals better get ready, that’s all I’ve got to say.”

1. Brian Kemp, Georgia 

Take a look at this timeline:

  • January 31, 2020: Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and a member of the President’s Coronavirus Task Force, announces at a White House press conference that although it was initially unclear whether an asymptomatic person could transmit COVID-19 to another person, we now know “that that is absolutely the case;”
  • February 26, 2020: HHS Secretary Alex Azar, also a member of Trump’s Task Force, says he is “alarmed” by infections occurring that have no clear link to confirmed cases;
  • March 2, 2020: Pinar Keskinocak, the head of Georgia Tech’s Center for Health and Humanitarian Systems warns Georgia’s health officials that “there is a strong chance that a person could be infected but asymptomatic, but could still infect others;”
  • March 14, 2020: Dr. Deborah Birx, the US government’s leader for combating HIV/AIDS globally, and the coordinator of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, pointedly warns young people to respect social distancing because even people without symptoms can spread the virus;
  • March 16, 2020: The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—located just outside Atlanta 20 minutes away from the Georgia Governor’s Mansion—acknowledges that the virus can be spread before people show symptoms; 
  • February 1 through March 31: Just about every public health official in the world warns repeatedly that the spreading of the COVID-19 virus by people without symptoms is a major threat to our health and safety. Thousands of articles are written about it, and television commentators, including those on Fox News, spread the word daily;
  • April 1, 2020: Georgia governor Brian Kemp explains why he waited until April Fool’s Day to issue a statewide stay-at-home order: “We didn’t know that [the virus can be spread by people without symptoms] until the last 24 hours. This is a game changer for us.”

It doesn’t get much worse than that.

Philip Rotner

Philip Rotner is a columnist whose articles appear in national publications and on his website, Philip is an attorney who has practiced for over 40 years, both in private practice and as the general counsel of a global professional services firm.  Philip’s views are his own, and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated.