June 3, 2023

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Coronavirus: Republican leaders slower to introduce social distancing, study finds

released by the University of Washington.

The study looks at a number of potential variables for understanding differences in response times between states — including state income, how neighbouring states reacted, state economics and the a state’s political makeup — and reported that it was “unambiguous” that “political variables are the strongest predictor of the early adoption of social distancing policies”.

“All else equal states with Republican governors and Republican electorates delayed each social distancing measure by an average of 2.70 days (95% CI: 249 to 2.88), a far larger effect than any other factor, including state income per capita, the percentage of neighbouring states with mandates, or even confirmed cases in state.”

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Though there are exceptions to the rule — the study specifically notes the responses of Governor Mike DeWine in Ohio and Governor Larry Hogan in Maryland, both Republicans, who were quick to react to the virus — the data suggest that Republican states, especially those heavily populated by supporters of Donald Trump, were slower to act.

“Holding constant other variables, including the 2016 Trump vote share, at their observed values in each state, on average, Republican governors delay each state-level social distance measure by 1.68 days,” the study concluded. “At the same time, holding constant the Governor’s party affiliation, states with more Trump voters were less likely to adopt social distancing.”

The data suggested that — barring unforeseen positive developments in the fight against the virus — the delays caused by partisan action would likely be “massive”, raising a state’s peak caseload of infected individuals “by 30.6 percent”.

The study’s authors suggest that Republican governors — particularly those who have historically aligned their views and policy goals with the president — were likely influenced by the president’s initial downplaying of the danger the virus posed during its early days of transmission in the US.

“Countering the message from public health leaders, the White House downplayed Covid-19. On 4 March 2020, President Trump insisted that Covid-19 was similar to the flu; two days later, he falsely claimed the situation in Italy was improving and that the US was handling coronavirus much better than other industrialised countries” the study said. “As late as 15 March 2020, with reported cases rising rapidly, Trump still maintained that the epidemic within the US was under control.”

Fox News was also tagged as a likely contributor to the delay in response from many Republican governors.

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“Fox Business host Trish Reagan insisted the pandemic warnings were a Democratic hoax and another effort to impeach the president, while Sean Hannity, another Fox News personality, validated the conspiracy theory that coronavirus was an effort by the ‘deep state’ to ‘manipulate markets, suppress dissent and push mandated medicines’,” the study said.

Since her false claims regarding the virus, Ms Reagan has left Fox Business.

The study’s data had tangible examples beyond the paper. The differences in leadership could be seen even between cities; in Florida, the Democratic mayors of Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach imposed closures during Spring Break weeks despite significant economic losses to help fight the spread of coronavirus.

Across the state, the Republican mayor of Clearwater left the beaches open, generating troubling photos of thousands of spring breakers packed together. A day prior, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had advised against gatherings of more than 50 people.

According to The Guardian, 15 of the 21 states to issue stay-at-home orders have been run by Democrats, while states run by Republican governors have tended towards downplaying the severity of the virus.

Governor Jim Justice of West Virginia told his constituents on 16 March to go out and eat at restaurants and go to grocery stores.

The night before, governor of Oklahoma, Kevn Stitt, tweeted a now-deleted photo of himself and his sons at a crowded restaurant, commenting: “It’s packed tonight”.

The study suggested that these leaders are likely prioritising their electoral and career ambitions, and that responding to constituents and party line expectations may not always produce the best results for the overall public.

“Why do Republican governors and states with Republican voters seem to resist social distancing policy, even controlling for many potential confounders? We strongly believe that realistic assessments of decision-making by elected officials must take electoral motivations and career ambitions seriously — as impolitic as that may be,” the study suggested. “Elected officials, regardless of party, must be responsive to the concerns fo their voters and party leaders. However, this essential feature of democratic representation does not inevitably produce the best policy outcome.”

The study concluded that, while politics wasn’t the sole motivator in how Republicans reacted, “political headwinds were significantly greater for Republican governors in Republican-leaning states,” and issued a dire warning if that trend continues.

“If Republican governors and states with Republican majorities continue to lag behind, the cumulative impact on those states, and on the country as a whole through spillovers, could be vast.”

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