Graham Kilmer

Trump Can’t Lift Pandemic Restrictions

In a state of emergency local health officials have broad authority to maintain restrictions.

By - Mar 25th, 2020 04:15 pm
Official portrait of President Donald J. Trump, Friday, October 6, 2017. Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead.

Official portrait of President Donald J. Trump, Friday, October 6, 2017. Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead.

In recent days, President Donald Trump made statements suggesting he wanted the restrictions on economic activity, put in place to protect public health during the COVID-19 pandemic, lifted. But local officials say he doesn’t have the authority.

The president told reporters at the White House that, “America will again, and soon, be open for business.” On Tuesday the president said he wanted restrictions to be lifted by Easter, April 12.

If the economy were to reopen, and social distancing was taken less seriously by the population and businesses, the results would be catastrophic for public health and the economy. Health officials have repeatedly stressed that the number one thing that will save lives, right now, is for the public to stay home. The latest data from the State of Wisconsin suggests the spread of the disease is accelerating, underlining the need for social distancing.

And economists have said that reopening the economy before the disease is contained, or the infection rate greatly reduced, would only prolong economic damage, as the infection rate would inevitably spike again. More importantly, prematurely lifting restrictions could lead to increased COVID-19 deaths that the restrictions were in place to prevent.

Fortunately, local officials say the president has little control over restrictions put in place by Milwaukee County, or the State of Wisconsin.

In a video-conference meeting of the Milwaukee County Board Tuesday, Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman brought up Trump’s statements and asked how the county would react. Corporation Counsel Margaret Daun said the president, “does not have legally a direct line of authority to command governors or local chief executives or local health officials to declare the emergency over.”

Christine Westrich, director of the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, said, “The authority now legally is with the local health officers.”

Local health officers at the state, county and municipal levels have broad authority to respond to the pandemic, now that official declarations of a state of emergency have been issued. Health officers like the City of Milwaukee’s Jeanette Kowalik have the power to issue quarantine orders and can give police powers to any health officer or coordinator that is staffed under them, Westrich said.

“I am very confident that here locally we would do everything we could to keep the current measures in place,” Westrich said. She added that it’s already proven, giving the example of countries like Singapore, that lifting restrictions prematurely will lead to a second wave of infections.

The state of emergency declared by Gov. Tony Evers must be reviewed, ratified or extended by the state Legislature by May 10. But even if the Legislature were to fail in that regard, Milwaukee County officials could maintain all pandemic-related restrictions they have put in place, Daun said.

Lifting restrictions early would fuel a surge of cases. A surge officials are already expecting, even with restrictions in place, to overwhelm the healthcare system. 

The healthcare system is running low on personal protective equipment for their staff. And it very likely does not have enough hospital beds to treat all patients should the numbers spiral as they have in places like Italy and New York City.

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Categories: Health

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