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As virus cases wane, governors weigh ending emergency orders

Gavin Newsom
Posted at 11:27 AM, Jun 12, 2021

New coronavirus infections and deaths in the U.S. are down dramatically from earlier highs, though more contagious variants are spreading. Most people are now are at least partially vaccinated, yet lingering hesitancy has slowed the pace and even caused some doses to go to waste.

So is the COVID-19 emergency over, or is it continuing?

That's the question facing residents and business owners in many states as governors decide whether to end or extend emergency declarations that have allowed them to restrict public gatherings and businesses, mandate masks, sidestep normal purchasing rules and deploy National Guard troops to help administer vaccines.

In many states, those emergency declarations have been routinely extended by governors every few weeks or months since the pandemic began. But those decisions are getting harder to make -- and the extensions harder to justify -- as circumstances improve and state lawmakers press to restore a balance of power.

Already, governors, lawmakers or judges have ended emergency declarations in more than a half-dozen states. That includes South Carolina and New Hampshire, where Republican governors halted their emergency orders this past week.

More could join that list soon. About half the states had emergency orders set to expire before the Fourth of July. And over a dozen additional states have open-ended emergency orders, which could be canceled at any time by governors.

Massachusetts has been in an indefinite state of emergency for 15 months. But Gov. Charlie Baker has said that will come to an end Tuesday. He credited the state's high vaccination rate with helping turn the tide in the fight against the coronavirus.

"Unless something odd happens, I would say that it is pretty much over," said Baker, a Republican.

Coronavirus emergencies also could expire Tuesday in Kansas and Vermont.

Top Republican lawmakers in Kansas, whose approval is needed for an extension, have signaled they won't continue an emergency order issued by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, though she prefers it remain through August.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, has said he will end all remaining emergency restrictions once 80% of eligible residents receive at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine -- a threshold the state is close to reaching.

In many states, Republicans are leading the push to end emergency declarations, though it's not entirely partisan. Some Democrats also have supported such moves, and some Republican governors have continued their emergency declarations. That includes Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who extended an emergency declaration through July 4.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige, a Democrat, recently renewed his emergency declaration for 60 more days, through Aug. 6. The tourist-dependent state, which imposed quarantines on travelers that effectively shut down the tourism industry, has the nation's lowest per capita COVID-19 case rate since the pandemic began and the highest unemployment rate. While some might cite that as a reason to lift emergency orders, Ige said it is too soon to do so.

"COVID-19 continues to endanger the health, safety, and welfare of the people of Hawaii," Ige wrote while extending his emergency declaration.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom is ending most coronavirus restrictions effective Tuesday but is continuing his underlying emergency declaration. Though that might sound confusing to residents, the move allows Newsom to retain his power to suspend state laws, impose new rules and reinstate restrictions if coronavirus cases again spike.

"This disease has not been extinguished. It's not vanished," the Democratic governor said while explaining his ongoing emergency declaration.

That doesn't sit well with legislative Republicans, who are in the minority. In the state Senate, they have tried repeatedly to pass a resolution that would end Newsom's declaration, but can't persuade majority Democrats.

"California's vaccination rate is high and the COVID infection rate continues to decrease," said Republican state Sen. Melissa Melendez. "It is time for the legislature to shake off the impotency the governor has imposed on the legislative branch of government and pass (the resolution)."

Nationally, the public health emergency declared by Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra is scheduled to run until July 20, though another 90-day extension is possible.

Within the past week, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials has received an increased number of inquiries from state officials about the potential consequences of rescinding their emergency declarations, said Andy Baker-White, the association's senior director of health policy.

Much of the federal pandemic aid -- including $350 billion for state and local governments in President Joe Biden's recent relief package and reimbursements for vaccine distributions -- could flow to states even if they end their emergency declarations.

But some federal aid could be affected. States are eligible for enhanced federal food aid benefits only if they have a COVID-19 emergency or disaster declaration in place, according to a Congressional Research Service analysis.

For many governors, keeping emergency declarations in place may be less disruptive to the public than rescinding and later re-imposing them if the pandemic worsens, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

But for other governors, it might be advantageous to relinquish their emergency powers, he said.

"Quite frankly, in a state where you're worried that people will accuse you of misusing those authorities, if you don't need them, you might want to get rid of them," Benjamin said.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who is up for re-election this year, ended the state's public health emergency earlier this month as part of a deal with Democratic lawmakers, who control the Legislature. He also signed legislation eliminating more than 100 executive orders while retaining just over a dozen, including those placing moratoriums on evictions and utility shutoffs.

Murphy called it a "clear and decisive step on the path toward normalcy," but some Republican lawmakers said it didn't go far enough in limiting his powers.

In Pennsylvania, the Republican-led Legislature voted Thursday to end Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's emergency declaration -- making use of new powers granted to lawmakers under a constitutional amendment approved by voters last month. But the immediate practical effect is limited, because lawmakers also voted to extend hundreds of regulatory waivers granted by Wolf's administration through Sept. 30.

Ending emergency declarations can affect a variety of lower-profile policies, such as relaxed licensing requirements in many states that have allowed more medical professionals to return to the workforce.

After Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, ended his emergency declaration May 4, the state stopped updating its online dashboard with the number of available hospital beds and its stockpile of ventilators, masks and other personal protective equipment. Rescinding the emergency order also triggered a 30-day countdown to resume in-person meetings for governmental bodies, and ended the ability of state agencies to hire additional staff and shift resources.

Benjamin, of the public health association, said he expects more states to end their coronavirus emergency orders in coming weeks because of improved infection and vaccination data, as well as public fatigue over long-running precautions.

"There's an emotional or psychological message you're sending that you're saying `OK, we're no longer in the emergency state,"' he said. "There's an opportunity there to give people a sense of normalcy."


David A. Lieb reported from Jefferson City, Missouri. Associated Press writers John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu; Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City; and Wilson Ring in Stowe, Vermont, contributed to this report.