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Photo illustration by Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

Governors, the pandemic’s early heroes, are getting torched for their handling of COVID-19

Governors once praised for their pandemic response are getting a more critical look

SHARE Governors, the pandemic’s early heroes, are getting torched for their handling of COVID-19
SHARE Governors, the pandemic’s early heroes, are getting torched for their handling of COVID-19

In normal times, being a governor is a demanding job. Add in a pandemic that’s deadly, ongoing and politically charged, and the challenges of governing can be insurmountable. Few governors remain unscathed, and with 36 out of 50 up for reelection next year, some of their records on COVID-19 are getting a closer look. 

“People don’t run for governor to have an easy job,” said National Governors Association press secretary James Nash. During the pandemic, governors had to procure personal protective equipment, distribute vaccines, revive shutdown economies and make inevitably controversial public health decisions. Few made all the right choices all the time.

Sometimes crisis can turn governors into stars, allowing them to present a strong executive presence on TV. It’s also made them easier targets as the pandemic has continued. In the early months, GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo were among those praised by partisans for their response to the coronavirus, but the shine hasn’t lasted.

“Every governor, from DeSantis in Florida to Andrew Cuomo in New York, adopted policies that appeared to have been beneficial to their state and limit the impact of the virus and seemingly get it under some control,” said John Weingart, director of the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics.

But COVID-19’s path proved unrelenting and unpredictable. “A state that seemed to be handling this well in the spring no longer is and now has a major crisis,” Weingart said.

Rising, falling stars

Cuomo, who resigned from office last month under threat of impeachment and following mounting allegations of sexual harassment, received a $3.1 million advance for a book about leadership during the pandemic, but his administration has since been called out for undercounting deaths due to the virus.

The FBI launched an investigation in February into whether Cuomo and his aides provided false data about nursing home resident deaths to the Justice Department. And on her first day in office, Cuomo’s successor, Gov. Kathy Hochul, said an additional 12,000 New Yorkers had died from COVID-19 who were not included in Cuomo’s count but were included in more complete Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

“The public deserves a clear, honest picture of what’s happening, whether it’s good or bad, they need to know the truth,” Hochul told NPR last week.

In Florida, DeSantis has sold his less restrictive handling of the virus as a selling point as he faces reelection next year and a possible presidential run in 2024. The situation in his state changed dramatically this summer, though. Infections reached an all-time peak in the state last month and deaths are still on the rise. DeSantis is also out of step with a large portion of his electorate.

A Quinnipiac poll released last week found 61% of Floridians believe the recent rise in COVID-19 cases was preventable, and 46% said DeSantis is hurting efforts to slow the spread of the virus, compared with 41% who say he’s helping to slow the spread. DeSantis’ mask mandate ban, which has put him at odds with multiple school districts, is also unpopular, with 68% saying local officials should be able to require masks in indoor public spaces if they believe it’s necessary. DeSantis now finds himself appealing to one slice of the electorate at the expense of others.

South Dakota GOP Gov. Kristi Noem is another potential 2024 presidential contender who’s touted her hands-off approach to the pandemic. For two consecutive years, the state’s Sturgis motorcycle rally has been held without restrictions, and followed by an increase of infections. One study found the 2020 rally was responsible for “widespread transmissions” and cases in at least 25 other states.

In Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott’s imposing COVID-19 restrictions on immigrants at the border has landed him in federal court and on the wrong side of a religious freedom dispute involving a Catholic charity that provides aid to immigrants.

The political consequences of governing during a pandemic have been most acute in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has been criticized for his more protective public health measures and for not following them himself. His management of the situation has largely been blamed for enabling opponents to rally support for a Sept. 14 recall election, where polls show a Republican is leading a field of 45 challengers. 

One ad from Stop the Republican Recall, a Democratic political action committee, shows an image of Newsom in a mask as a narrator says he’s “protecting California” with vaccine requirements for health workers and school employees, before showing radio show host Larry Elder, the leading Republican in the race, who’s opposed to mask and vaccine mandates and said he doesn’t believe in public health measures proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19. “It’s a matter of life or death,” the narrator says.

Other governors have faced recall threats over their handling of the pandemic, including Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and Washington Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, though none have made it to the ballot. Spurred on by lockdowns, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has had 34 recall attempts since 2020, according to a tally by Ballotpedia, not to mention a foiled kidnapping attempt.

‘A call for humility’

Kristin Urquiza, who co-founded the group Marked by COVID, after her father, Mark, died from COVID-19 in 2020 in Arizona, wants Ducey recalled.

“He is unwilling to put the well-being of people in the state over his friends or his political career,” she said, citing Ducey’s rush to reopen the economy and ban mask mandates.

Ducey was given a “D” for his handling of the pandemic by the doctor who led the University of Arizona’s COVID-19 modeling team.

Urquiza said communities hit especially hard by the pandemic, like Latinos in Arizona, are mobilized to hold politicians accountable.

“We have the receipts as far as what elected officials did and didn’t do throughout the course of this pandemic to prove that many of these people lied or misled the public,” she said. “We also have the stories, we have the survivors, we have the children who don’t have a parent. We have all of the victims’ families who are beyond committed to ensure that something like this never happens again, and that the people who are responsible for making it so much worse are held to account.”

That governors would push back against imposing more health restrictions even as their states are hammered by the delta variant and low vaccination rates doesn’t surprise Urquiza.

“What I’m seeing is a lot of governors double down on this terrible nonscientific-focused mitigation measures to appeal to their base,” she said. “It’s not surprising, seeing how these governors have reacted throughout the entire pandemic.”

Arkansas GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson is among the few who have openly and publicly called for reversing course to mitigate spiking infection rates. Last month he said he wished a mask mandate ban he signed into law had not been passed and an Arkansas court blocked the bill.

‘Call for humility’

President Joe Biden has targeted Republican governors for banning mask mandates, calling on them to “get out of the way.” On Monday, his Department of Education announced it’s investigating whether mask mandate bans in five states discriminate against students with disabilities and conditions that put them at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19. The states — Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah — all have Republican governors.

Governors have in some cases been given emergency powers because of the pandemic, but those are being curtailed by state legislatures. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 22 states have passed some form of executive oversight or restrictions since 2020. In Utah, lawmakers passed a bill that limits the governor’s ability to extend a state of emergency, provides legislative oversight to declare a new state of emergency and ended the state’s mask mandate.

“While we weren’t thrilled with the bill, it could have been worse,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, told Politico. He said he believed it added extra weeks before public health provisions expired to get more people vaccinated. “We were able to get significantly more time before the endgame.”

Cox told the Deseret News he’s considering allowing schools the power to require masks should case rates reach a certain threshold, but he wants the Legislature’s support since it could overturn a public health order. Reported cases in Utah have risen to their highest levels since January 2021, and cases among school-aged children are more than three times higher than last year.

Weingart, at Rutgers University, said governors had their work cut out for themselves from the start because of the slow, incoherent federal response of the Trump administration in the first months of the pandemic.

“Had there been a different president, there would have been a national coordination and governors would have been responding to cues from” federal agencies, he said. Instead, “each governor was fending for themselves.”

Asked if there were any governors who could be held up as success stories, Weingart paused before saying he didn’t know of any. But there is “a need to prepare for emergencies” to come, based on what we learned from this crisis, which has so far killed at least 642,451 Americans.

“The lesson to all governors should be a call for humility,” he said.