Localities Must Take the Lead in Reopening America

Beyond Federalism, dynamic problems require dynamic solutions

It’s been a cold, depressing spring, but at last, a frozen America is starting to thaw. Governors of states across the country, including Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, and Texas, have announced the start of a gradual reopening process.

Restrictions on dine-in restaurants have been the first to go with Alaska and Texas allowing 25 percent capacity for eateries. Similar restrictions will apply to normally-bustling venues such as malls and—in North Dakota at least—movie theaters. State leaders should think beyond the templates created by other, differently affected, states. By empowering localities and refraining from overly broad policies, states can finally get on track and put the pandemic, and its economic fallout, in the rearview mirror.

Regardless of what certain mayors may suggest, there’s no perfect, one-size-fits-all approach to reopening the economy. Since state officials are closer to the action than federal officials, they’ll likely have more insight into local conditions than bureaucrats many miles away.

Even within states, there are very different locales requiring very different responses to the Coronavirus. What makes sense for Atlanta may not work in rural Ware County, Georgia. To account for these local differences, states could construct a range of possible responses that municipal leaders would be suggested to follow. For example, a restaurant filling up to 100 percent capacity in downtown Austin, Texas looks far different than a restaurant being considered “full” in Lubbock, Texas (a six-hour drive away).

Unsurprisingly, Coronavirus death rates in non-metro counties are about 75 percent lower than they are in more densely populated metropolitan areas. Given these vast differences in the pandemic’s toll, and the feasibility of reopening, governors could give different options to different localities.

Perhaps rural counties and sparsely populated towns could be permitted to reopen restaurants at up to one-third capacity, while crowded cities must remain at 25 percent. Because of their outsized senior populations, some counties should be more risk-averse than the national or state norm. In Sumter County, Florida, for instance, the median age is over 66more than 50 percent higher than the national norm. These areas with significant retirement communities should be given the green light to extend social isolation as they see fit.

Governors and state officials should allow for local flexibility while responding appropriately and proportionately to flagrant violations of “social distancing.” California Governor Gavin Newsom (D), learned this the hard way when he briefly considered closing all beaches statewide in response to a few overcrowded beaches in highly populated areas.

The state government failed to explain to Golden State residents why Newport Beach excesses should ruin the fun for residents of far quieter beach communities hundreds of miles to the north. The resulting outrage caused Gov. Newsom to (partially) reverse course, but far too many parks remain shuttered. One-size-fits-all orders make especially little sense for parks, which feature a far wider range of terrains and distensibility than beaches.

As statistician Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight points out, “given what we seem to be learning about outdoor transmission, this seems like a way to possibly erode public support for lockdown measures while not necessarily getting a huge amount of mileage in terms of public health.”

Some parks, such as Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, feature narrow trails and would be difficult to fully keep open in a safe way. But more wide-open spaces like Bodie State Historic Park could probably safely practice social distancing.

What applies to one park, beach, or municipality needn’t apply to all the others. State officials can and must set the stage for reopening but should afford local leaders plenty of flexibility in how to proceed. This limited opening could work even within states where there’s an incredible diversity of cities, pastoral lands, packed beaches, and isolated inlets.

Elected officials should embrace flexibility, instead of doubling-down on mandates and broad restrictions. A post-pandemic summer is possible but only by emboldening local leaders.


Ross Marchand is the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. 

Ross Marchand is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. He focuses on a range of issues, ranging from health-care reform to internet regulation to Postal Service-related issues. Ross is an alumnus of the Mercatus Center MA Fellowship at George Mason University, where he received his MA in economics in 2016. He has interned for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, analyzing and blogging on a variety of public policy issues.
Catalyst articles by Ross Marchand