Experts worry politics will guide voters' virus precautions
Laura Herd says she sleeps better because her state's governor, Michigan Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, imposed one of the nation's strictest stay-at-home orders to combat the coronavirus pandemic. President Donald Trump's actions are another story.
“His goal is to get the economy back up so he stands a chance in November," said Herd, 36, of Traverse City, Michigan, who works for an environmental news service. "But he’s not willing to listen to the experts about what that really means.”
Herd's skepticism about Trump's desire to push the country back toward normal isn't uncommon, especially among her fellow Democrats and many independents. That's prompting concern by public health professionals that voters will use partisan lenses to decide which policymakers they heed as communities consider easing restrictions that have smothered normal life — a potentially dangerous dynamic.
“You’ll get more people sick and run the risk of more people dying, because you’ll have such confusion because people won’t know what to do,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, which represents professionals and organizations in the field. “They’ll selectively pick the advice that aligns with their ideology.”
Underscoring that people’s political views are already guiding opinions on state-imposed restrictions, MAGA hat-wearing Trump supporters, gun rights advocates and backers of right-wing causes have demonstrated outside governors’ mansions and state Capitols in several states, demanding that the curbs be eased.
In a remarkable action by a president, Trump fired out three tweets on Friday urging his followers to “LIBERATE” Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia. Each are states where conservative demonstrators have demanded that Democratic governors relax curbs they've imposed on families, business and travel.
Trump has wanted states to relax restrictions by May 1 and has inaccurately claimed “total" authority to decree how that happens. Many governors, mostly Democrats, have long made clear they’ll ease restrictions at their own pace.
Trump had seemed to retreat on Thursday, when the White House issued vague guidelines for gradually returning to normal activities that left final decisions to the states.
“From a public health point of view, you want a unified position from government regarding what's the best way to protect people,” said Robert Blendon, a health policy professor at Harvard University's School of Public Health.
AP interviews around the country found voters navigating the pandemic on their own and dubious about advice from the other party’s leaders. Many expressed confidence in top public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, fixtures at Trump's press briefings.
Fauci is the government’s top infectious disease expert and Birx is the White House coronavirus task force coordinator.
Ted Hill of Asheville, N.C., a Republican and retired accountant, praised Trump and said local officials’ restrictions have gone too far.
“Good Lord, if you go into a supermarket without a mask, they look at you like you have two heads,” he said. Hill said Trump “surrounds himself with good people" and gets good results.
Niki Waldron of Vallejo, Calif., said she’s glad Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed an early stay-at-home order. But she worries about friends and family living in Trump-friendly areas and thinks advisers like Fauci and Birx must guard against angering Trump.
“I don’t feel like the rest of our federal government is necessarily basing their judgments on sound science,” Waldron said.
David Barr, 53, who said he usually votes Republican, said Whitmer's restrictions were hurting businesses like golf courses that he said could operate safely.
“We don’t need a month to start reopening the economy," said Barr, who works for a group of radio stations in northern Michigan. He said Whitmer's “credibility is questionable."
A confused public reaction to whether they should begin stepped up activities could do more than complicate efforts to keep people safe and revive the dormant economy. The question of whose advice voters follow — and whether it proves wise or disastrous — could be a major political battlefield for this November’s presidential and congressional elections.
Trump’s reelection prospects would be badly damaged if today's Depression-era levels of unemployment and failed businesses don’t improve. He invited numerous congressional Republicans and Democrats to join a White House task force on rebooting the country, which he could use to shield himself from blame by arguing he is relying on bipartisan advice.
A fresh push by Trump to loosen restrictions would be especially potent in GOP-leaning states, where “there’ll be a lot of pressure on those states’ politicians to lighten up,” said Joseph Antos, a health policy expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“If there’s a big fight with the governors versus Trump, it would be really bad for public health,” said Drew Altman, president of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. “The public won’t know what to believe.”
Fact-checkers have documented thousands of falsehoods by Trump since he became president. Since the pandemic began, polls have underscored how poorly he’s trusted to handle the disease and how views of his competency are divided along party lines.
In a late March survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 44 percent overall approved of Trump’s handling of the outbreak. Those high marks came from around 8-in-10 Republicans, but less than 2-in-10 Democrats and about 4-in-10 independents.
Federal public health authorities like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local officials are more trusted than Trump for handling the outbreak, polls show.
And a poll this week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of people are more worried about states moving too quickly to lift restrictions, rather than too slowly. That sentiment was expressed more strongly by Democrats than Republicans.
Looking to maximize public faith as the economy reopens, business groups have urged the White House to make clear that its guidelines are endorsed by trusted authorities, not just Trump.
“People will be more comfortable if they see the advice is from public health officials," said Neil Bradley, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's chief policy officer.
Flesher reported from Traverse City, Michigan. Associated Press writer Andrew Seligman in Chicago contributed to this report.