WASHINGTON — Despite President Donald Trump's false assertion that he has "total" authority over American states, those with the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths say they don't intend to wait for his decision on restarting the economy and will instead resolve for themselves what timeline is best to start a measured and calculated reopening process.
NBC News reached out to governors of the states hardest hit by the pandemic to see how they plan to make determinations about lifting stay-at-home orders and returning, gradually, to any semblance of normalcy.
The bipartisan group indicated a preference for "slowly, strategically, smartly and safely" evaluating those factors and disputed Trump's claim that he alone "calls the shots" of how and when business will resume, backed by a desire to electrify the economy with a "big bang" next month.
In recent weeks, the president has been eager to develop a plan for regions of the country to open back up by May 1. But his top health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have warned against committing to any date in the near future. Fauci told The Associated Press on Tuesday that early next month is "a bit overly simplistic" as a goal.
Republican governors in the states most affected by the respiratory illness have largely agreed with that assessment. "This is not going to be a rush-the-gates, everybody-is-able-to-suddenly-reopen-all-at-once situation," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said Monday.
Just last week, when pressed repeatedly on why he wasn't encouraging states that hadn't enacted stay-at-home orders to do so, Trump said he would defer to the states.
In recent days the president has taken a new stance, arguing that individual states would not be able to make independent decisions about how they will proceed in the coming weeks and months. The governors, meanwhile, say such decisions remain up to them and the chief executives from states in the Northeast and on the West Coast are discussing coordinating the reopening economic activity alongside their neighbors.
Here's a look at what some of the hardest-hit states say they plan to do if the president relaxes the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on stopping the spread of the disease once they expire on April 30, and what benchmark each state will use to define when and how to ease social distancing restrictions.
As governor of the state with the most COVID-19 cases and deaths, Andrew Cuomo had led daily briefings, often praising the administration and vowing to work together on the response while also asserting independence.
Cuomo, a Democrat, has been candid that he alone will decide what is best for the state and will not put economic gain over public health. "He has no fight here, I won't let it happen," Cuomo said of the president at a news conference on Tuesday, while maintaining that he had put his hand out "to say let's do this together." Statewide stay-at-home guidelines expire on April 29 but are likely to be extended.
Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, is working closely with a multistate group to decide how best to open in a synchronized fashion. "An economic recovery only occurs on the back of a complete health care recovery," Murphy said Monday during a news conference with the governors of New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Delaware. "We're not there yet." Murphy hasn't indicated when New Jersey's stay-at-home order will be lifted.
The stay-at-home order for Massachusetts residents has been extended through May 4, and Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday that the outbreak is far from over. "Today is the beginning of what we expect is going to be a very difficult period," Baker said at a news conference.
Baker, a Republican, also broke with Trump on his goal to begin phasing out the strictest guidance in early May. "I don't think anybody thinks you can just flip the switch," Baker said, noting that different parts of the country will see the virus surge at different times. Baker said more testing would be required before he could lift restrictions.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says she's working on a plan to reopen the state and relax coronavirus restrictions, which have been extended to at least the end of April. Whitmer, a Democrat, did not announce any specifics but said the restrictions would be reduced in phases.
"Every day we are writing the plan so we can re-engage safely at the appropriate time, because not one of us wants to go through this again -- not in a month, not in the fall," she told reporters Monday. Whitmer said before she takes steps to reopen the state, she wants to see a sustained reduction in cases and an increased ability to test for and trace coronavirus cases. "We have a few tough days ahead of us. But those days where we can resume some normalcy, they are on the horizon," she said.
The state's stay-at-home order is currently in place indefinitely. On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state would join forces with Washington and Oregon in a "Western States Pact" to regionally coordinate reopening their economies. Newsom, a Democrat, said Tuesday his team had outlined six key indicators the state would use to determine when it would be safe to reopen the economy, among them testing, hospital capacity, and the development of therapeutics.
Pennsylvania's stay-at-home order expires on April 30, but Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said he is "assessing continuously" with nearby states whether the order needs to be extended because the only thing determining a timeline at the moment is the virus itself. "We are acutely aware that opening things back up too soon could make things worse, overwhelm our health system and lead to prolonged measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19," Wolf told NBC News in a statement.
Illinois' stay-at-home order was issued through April 30, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, says the state needs to ramp up its testing capacity before the restrictions are relaxed. "You need widespread testing," he told Monday at a news conference. "We don't have anywhere near widespread testing."
Pritzker also said the state must implement a contact tracing system and offer treatment to lessen the severity of the symptoms, so that fewer people require hospitalization. "Governor Pritzker has been clear that science will guide his decisions on how best to move forward," Pritzker press secretary Jordan Abudayyeh told NBC News in a statement.
Gov. Ron DeSantis last week became one of the last few governors in the U.S. to issue a stay-at-home order amid the coronavirus pandemic. The directive lasts through at least April 30. DeSantis, a Republican, says he consulted with Trump and White House advisers before acting. His order deviates from what many public health experts advise, in permitting many outdoor activities and attendance at houses of worship.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said Monday it is "too early to know" whether the state's stay-at-home order will expire as scheduled on April 30. The governor, a Democrat, has described the next phase as a "transition period," while repeatedly warning the state's social distancing restrictions will stay in place so long as the high rate of detected cases and deaths persists. Edwards said Monday he will order public schools to remain closed for the rest of the academic year.
Texas so far appears to be the state most in lockstep with Trump and the federal government. Gov. Greg Abbott's stay-at-home order is in effect through April 30 — the same day the White House national guidance is set to expire — though some Texas counties have already extended their directions well into May. At a news conference Monday announcing his plans to "slowly, strategically, smartly and safely" reopen the Texas economy, Abbott, a Republican, said he has maintained "constant contact" with the White House and all decisions are being made in collaboration with federal partners.
Gov. Brian Kemp told reporters Monday it's too early to tell when he will start to relax the state's coronavirus restrictions. The governor, a Republican, called the current testing shortage "unacceptable" and said his administration is currently focused on boosting the state's testing capacity. "We're going to need that when we go back to work," Kemp said.
Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, has extended a stay-at-home order until May 20, well past the president's goal to reopen certain parts of the country at the start of next month. Connecticut is working with other states in the Northeast as a "regional coalition" and will look to the federal government for testing protocols but will ultimately dictate their own timeline in coordination with neighboring states.
Washington, where the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the U.S., currently has a stay-at-home order for residents in effect through May 4, though the governor has warned that date could be extended yet again.
Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, announced Monday the state would work together with nearby California and Oregon on a "shared approach" for reopening their economies, emphasizing the states would be prioritizing health considerations in making that decision. "We will continue to consult with our federal partners," a spokesman for Inslee told NBC News in a statement, "but will ultimately make the right decision for Washingtonians based on the science and the facts."
As chair of the National Governors Association, Gov. Larry Hogan has been one of the most outspoken leaders during the pandemic, vowing to work alongside the president and federal government but leaving the "ultimate decision" to the states. It's unclear when Maryland's stay-at-home order will expire, with Hogan, a Republican, referring to May 1 as an "artificial deadline" and saying "you can't just pick a date and flip a switch — I don't think it's going to be that simple."
Gov. Eric Holcomb said last week that he's looking at tweaking his "Hunker Down Hoosiers" stay-at -home executive order, which lasts at least through April 20. "We're still in the woods, but the good news is we can see the clearing ahead," Holcomb, a Republican, said recently, while warning that "social distancing is still crucial."
Colorado's stay-at-home order may be set to expire on April 26, but "that doesn't mean that bars will be open or restaurants will be full," Gov. Jared Polis said at a news conference Monday. Polis, a Democrat, explained that a number of social distancing measures will remain in place even after the order is lifted. "We need to find a way for people to support themselves and go about their lives in a more normal way," Polis said, adding that he'll release more specific information about what that period would look like a few days before the April 26 deadline.
Ohio's stay-at-home order is set to expire on May 1, though Gov. Mike DeWine told The Washington Post on Monday that "we don't really know what date" it will be safe to reopen the economy. DeWine predicted the White House will support the plan he puts forward, stressing that governors have historically made these sorts of decisions about health and safety issues in their states.
DeWine, a Republican, also said he anticipates a long period of time before things fully return to normal. "We're not going to be all the way back until we have a vaccine that is available to everyone in the state," DeWine told the Post, saying that likely would take over a year.
The stay-at-home order in Virginia is currently set to remain in place through June 10, over a month past the goal the White House set for a partial reopening beginning next month. At a news conference Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam told reporters that the state's social distancing measures were working, but cautioned against reopening things too early.
"If we try to rush to get our lives back to normal, the number of cases will spike higher and earlier," Northam, a Democrat, said. "And we can't afford that." Northam also stressed that despite Trump's claims of total authority over the states, he and he alone would make the decision about when to reopen Virginia. "We'll be making those decisions as far as what's best for Virginia here in Virginia," he said.