Imagine if the response to 9/11 had been to close the New York Fire Department. Or if the follow-up to Hurricane Katrina had been taking away satellites from the National Hurricane Center. Now imagine if the reaction to the greatest disaster in over a century was taking money and power away from the agencies tasked with protecting the public from that disaster… while the disaster was still underway.
Unfortunately, that last one is not just imagination and likely not even much of a surprise. That’s because in just over half of all states, Republicans in power at the state level have used the deaths of 670,000 Americans, and a disease that spread to at least 42 million others as an excuse to execute a power grab—one that leaves states, counties, and cities less capable of dealing with every emergency to come. As Kaiser Health News reports, in 26 states, Republicans “took away powers state and local officials use to protect the public against infectious diseases.”
Republicans didn’t just limit the powers of officials to deal with the raging pandemic. They did it while the disease was still spreading, hospitals overflowing, and thousands still dying. They didn’t just close down the fire department; they sent the trucks home while the buildings were still on fire.
In most states, public health officials have been in place for well over a century, with authority that dates back to well before the 1918 epidemic. Those officials have imposed quarantines against cholera, imposed mask mandates and suspending public performances for sweeping waves of flu, and closed schools that faced outbreaks of measles or mumps.
But in the face of COVID-19, Republicans have stripped state and local health officials of exactly the powers that have proven, time and again, to be most effective in dealing with disease. As this 2013 paper from the National Institutes of Health detailed,
Over the centuries, from the time of the Black Death to the first pandemics of the twenty-first century, public health control measures have been an essential way to reduce contact between persons sick with a disease and persons susceptible to the disease. In the absence of pharmaceutical interventions, such measures helped contain infection, delay the spread of disease, avert terror and death, and maintain the infrastructure of society.
But now, in over half the nation, Republicans have acted to permanently weaken the powers of public health officials.
Mask mandates, proven effective again and again, have been completely banned in some states, including Arkansas, where masks were declared to be “a burden” on public health. Idaho gave county commissioners veto power over public health orders. Kansas and Tennessee no longer allow health officials to order a school closed, no matter how dire the circumstances.
In states like Texas and Florida, governors issued executive orders that stripped power away from city and county officials, school boards, and businesses when requiring the use of masks, checking for vaccination, or limiting in-person interactions. In both those states and many others, Republicans followed up with legislation that turned emergency orders into permanent injunctions.
That means that, in addition to five states where executive orders are blocking masks from stopping COVID-19 right now, nine states have taken away the ability for anyone to order a mask mandate, no matter what the threat, in the future. In addition, 16 other states have taken away the authority of local health officials to issue such mandates. Or to require quarantines. Or to close businesses, schools, or public facilities.
Seventeen states not only made it illegal for either government agencies or private businesses to require proof of COVID-19 vaccination, but many of those states also did so in ways that make it possible to get around all vaccinations.
These actions only make President Joe Biden’s actions in requiring vaccination more vital. But that’s for now. The real cost of these actions may not be felt until the next time the fire begins … and no one can answer the bell.