President Trump promised Friday to “unleash the full power of the federal government” against the novel coronavirus, officially declaring the outbreak a “national emergency” — “two very big words,” as he put it. But although this announcement drew headlines, the reality is that the president’s legal authorities in a pandemic are limited. Trump will continue to capture an outsize share of media coverage, but the most important actions in the fight against the virus probably won’t come from the president — they will come from governors and mayors.
The administration’s bungled responses to covid-19 — the snaillike rollout of test kits, the botched announcement regarding restrictions on travel from Europe, the president’s own pseudoscientific speculations on virology and more — have amounted to a comedy of errors with potentially tragic consequences. But the pandemic will be, to a large extent, a drama in 51 acts. The states and the District of Columbia, not the federal government, will decide when to shut schools, shops and other gathering places — and when to reopen them. It’s our governors and mayors — not the president — who will command medical personnel and law enforcement officials on the front lines of emergency response.
The diffusion of responsibility across the federal government and the 50 states is often thought to be a flaw in the nation’s disaster response infrastructure. But divided responsibility also leaves us less vulnerable to failures at the national level. Here, what we thought was our Achilles’ heel may be our saving grace.
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