New York: The Corona Crisis Shows the Benefits of Localism Yet Again
One unintended effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to highlight the state’s ineptitude in dealing with pandemics. Specifically, it shows the dramatic consequences that one-size-fits-all measures have for areas whose specific needs are not properly addressed by the approach or where the problems being addressed are not present. Federal government health officials have warned that states are “opening too early” from the lockdowns suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Yet states like Florida and Georgia have recently opened back up and removed their blanket lockdowns, but COVID-19 cases have (at least so far) not surged. Florida has instead opted to allow local communities to decide how to move forward, with denser, more affected areas like Miami continuing with safety precautions.
The willingness of states and local communities to open up, regardless of what federal government officials proclaim, shows us the benefits of localism. It has allowed for less hard-hit areas to adopt policies more similar to those of Sweden, which has been praised by the World Health Organization (WHO) for its long-term thinking, and which now serves as the de facto model for many jurisdictions. The localist strategy, though, is one that can be praised on other grounds. The adoption of a more localist mindset allows political jurisdictions that have a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases to avoid harsh lockdowns that have ended many small businesses and are threatening many more.
In the US, the contrast is not only between the federal and state governments, but also between the state and local governments. Several local governments have sued state governments over their blanket lockdowns. The urban-rural distinction has been made quite apparent by this dichotomy. Even in the most populous states, COVID-19 cases have often been concentrated in urban areas and their surroundings.
This problem is highlighted better than anywhere else in the state of New York. As of May 18, New York continues to be number one in cases, at 347,936 cases and 28,168 deaths. Downstate (the city and surrounding counties) represents 59 percent of coronavirus cases, while nearly all remaining cases are represented by Upstate New York’s few urban areas like Buffalo and Albany.
Despite this clear distinction in population density, cases, deaths, and the overall risk of opening, all of New York had been subject to the same policies as the city until recently. Governor Cuomo has set guidelines to allow New York counties to reopen. Meanwhile, New York has been splitting into regional councils to determine whether a certain area qualifies to reopen. Regions permitted to reopen have been central New York, the Finger Lakes, Mohawk Valley, North Country, Southern Tier, and Western New York, with Capital Region expected to reach the requirements to open up soon.
Compounding criticisms of Governor Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic and the more localist approach’s display of efficiency reminds us of a debate that had been occurring even before the pandemic, namely, splitting New York State between upstate and downstate. Although many proposals to do this have surfaced and failed in New York’s history, recent events may rekindle the conversation.
Talk of secession over COVID-19 will not be exclusive to New York State, however. Talk of secession was already floating around American discourse before the pandemic, not only at the state level, but on a local level relative to state governments as well. After battles over gun control in the Virginia legislature, some counties threatened to not enforce such measures and even split from the state. In highlighting this contrast between the federal, state, and local governments’ values and ways of administering their power, COVID-19 could become the crux of another nationwide conversation on the partitioning and even secession of states, especially since governments’ handling of the pandemic has further deepened the divide between urban and rural populations.
Although it is uncertain whether this will be a consequence of the current pandemic, what is certain is that localism has gained much legitimacy. Only time will tell whether the embrace of such attitudes will outlast the pandemic or fade away.