Who’s in Charge?

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As coronavirus cases continue to multiply throughout the United States, a wide range of solutions has emerged to try to measure the rate of infection and contain its damage.

For his part, President Trump has veered between science denialism and war rhetoric, glibly comparing the coronavirus to the flu or traffic accidents, or cheerily promoting unproven cures. He closed the borders to some hotspots at the end of January, but otherwise waited until March 13 to declare a national emergency. Now he embraces models predicting millions of deaths in the absence of interventions but hesitates to use the full powers of his office to force companies to produce critical medical supplies or more aggressively regulate affected industries.

By contrast, states that have been hit the hardest—New York and Washington—quickly moved from self-isolation and limited testing and care to more aggressive emergency actions. Many states and cities have followed suit. But some holdouts—such as Governor Tate Reeves, who declares “Mississippi’s never going to be China”—have defied the trend.

It’s easy to interpret these differences through the lens of bumbling unpreparedness or political partisanship, but that leaves out a crucial part of the story: the complex legal structure of U.S. emergency power and the clash of different guiding philosophies of emergency governance. It’s worth understanding these dynamics not just to see our vulnerabilities, but also to plan accordingly.

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