If you watch Gov. Kim Reynolds’ press conferences every day like several of us at Starting Line do, you know they fall into a general routine.
The Governor and health leaders talk vaguely about metrics and data, which they’re using to make decisions except when they’re not. They repeat generic “If you’re sick, stay home” advice, even after acknowledging weeks ago that that’s not enough. If there’s bad news, as there is pretty much every day, well, they’re “monitoring that.” And when pressed on concerning new outbreaks, we get a lesson on how we’re “learning more about the virus” every day.
But every so often, a little off-hand quip here and there provides us a glimpse into some of the real thought process of why Iowa is doing what it is in response to the coronavirus.
One such moment came at yesterday’s press conference, when Reynolds oddly seemed to refer to her own pandemic orders and restrictions as “punishments.”
A reporter was asking the Governor why the state used a regional approach at first to react to the virus’ spread, but was now switching to a county-based system in the decision to “reopen” 77 of Iowa’s counties.
Reynolds replied by noting that the regional system was focused on health care resources and not overwhelming the state’s hospital systems. Now that the state has rolled out its “Test Iowa” initiative, Reynolds explained, they could “drill down and manage and contain virus activity around the state” on a more local basis with that new data.
“This allows us to more surgically go in and see where we’re seeing hot spots, where we’re seeing increased numbers,” Reynolds said.
Nevermind that Iowa conducted just 1,514 tests yesterday, or that the new initiative is still getting off the ground. And left unsaid, of course, was that the regional system and the ridiculous “metrics” it used for them made it harder to increase restrictions in the state; using a county-by-county method makes it easier to lift them. But I digress.
At the end of a long answer, Reynolds framed the state’s restrictions in an interesting way.
“And so, I shouldn’t punish half of this state when we’ve got a significant spike in eight areas,” Reynolds said.
How odd. I thought that Iowa had closed schools, shuttered nonessential businesses and restricted social gatherings to slow down the spread of a deadly virus and protect Iowa’s most vulnerable citizens. I was under the impression we were living through a global pandemic, and that drastic steps by the government were a tough but necessary tool to avoid a catastrophic death toll. But to some, it seems, they’re “punishments” for… some people in your community getting sick?
In fairness, I doubt that’s how Reynolds intended to frame that particular answer. But I do think it gives us a look into at least some of the mindset behind Republican leaders’ thoughts and decision-making process on COVID-19.
There’s been growing sentiment on the right that government has used too heavy a hand to stop the coronavirus, and even a distrust that the virus is as serious as it’s made out to be, despite the U.S. tallying over 60,000 deaths already from it. Many right-wing pundits have labeled it all an “overreaction,” and have focused in on Democratic governors they believe are intentionally damaging their economies over pandemic hysteria. And it seems those ideas have started to seep in to some GOP leaders’ thinking.
There was an even better example of this during a recent press conference by Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, whose inaction in his own state has caused terrible consequences for the people of Sioux City.
As the meatpacking plant outbreak crisis grew, Ricketts adamantly refused calls to temporarily close any facility, even as they drove massive numbers of COVID-19 cases in the state. As part of his rationale, Ricketts warned of “civil unrest” if pork and beef plants were to idle.
“Can you imagine what would happen if people could not go to the store and get food? You want to talk about some of these protests going on right on? Think about how mad people were when they couldn’t get paper products. Think about if they couldn’t get food. This is why it’s vitally important to keep our food processors open,” Ricketts said.
Yes, Ricketts seemed so concerned about the dozens to hundreds of people who showed up at various anti-shutdown protests at other state capitols lately, it was guiding his policy decisions.
Likely, Republicans like Ricketts looked at those protests, saw the similarities to the old Tea Party rallies and thought this was their party’s base, and they need to listen to them.
In reality, the fringe weirdos at the anti-shutdown protests are on the far extremes of public sentiment on the pandemic. While they may have made up an important part and leading voice of the Trump coalition’s Republican Party, things have changed during the worst public health crisis in a century, and the views of these crackpots are getting broadly dismissed as they rightly should be.
A national poll last week found “72% [of Americans] believe moving too quickly to loosen the stay-at-home orders is a greater threat to the country than moving too slowly, and 86% think social distancing and stay-at-home orders are responsible policies.” Another poll released yesterday showed that 65% of Americans felt that returning to work was a bad idea, as did 80% of people on reopening restaurants.
Governors like Reynolds and Ricketts are wildly out of step with public opinion on the coronavirus. Whether that’s due to a mistaken belief in where their party is at on the issue or due to intense pressure from business allies to reopen the economy (or a mix of both) may be irrelevant.
Also, I’m going to take a wild guess here, disagree with Gov. Ricketts and predict that there would not be food riots if grocery stores didn’t have as much pork for a few weeks or if meat prices increased for a short time. You know why people probably wouldn’t riot?
Because we’re in the middle of a freakin’ pandemic.
The American people are at their most understanding right now. They get the seriousness of the situation. Unlike many Republican governors and the President, they don’t think that workers should be forced into dangerous conditions just so there’s bacon at the grocery store.
Their primary motivating factor is not to return to “their favorite restaurant,” the phrase Reynolds repeated over and over again in announcing she’d allow them to reopen in 77 counties. Iowans are motivated to stay safe.
So it’s worrisome that Reynolds may view economic restrictions during the pandemic as “punishment” or really anything other than what they are: necessary public health safety measures.
If these Republicans were thinking long-term enough, they’d also realize they’re necessary for the economy bouncing back. Reopening too soon, before Iowa even hits its peak in cases and deaths, runs the risk of worsening the outbreak and driving people back into their homes.
What’s important here is the public’s trust. Trust that they’ll be safe when they walk into work or that they can visit a restaurant without getting sick.
The protections and restrictions that government puts into place during a pandemic aren’t solely aimed at avoiding a crash of the health care system from too many patients at once. They’re also intended to buy time for better testing, better protections at workplaces and a clear plan to prevent the kind of rapid outbreaks at places like manufacturing plants or nursing homes. Iowa has clearly continued to fail on those last two measures.
Until Iowa’s governor gets into the right mindset on this pandemic, the state, its people and its economy are likely to suffer for longer than it needs to.
by Pat Rynard
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