Stateline | Digital Deserts, Stay-at-Home Orders and More


The sign outside a synagogue in Babylon, N.Y. Because of statewide stay-at-home orders, many houses of worship moved regular services to the web.


DOJ Watching for Unlawful Restrictions

The U.S. Justice Department has cast a wary eye on social-distancing orders that prevent in-person religious gatherings in any form. Such restrictions are in place in at least 10 states. Two federal prosecutors are now in charge of an effort “to monitor state and local policies and, if necessary, take action to correct them,” according to a letter U.S. Attorney General William Barr sent in late April to all U.S. attorneys offices. Barr’s concern is with restrictions that could violate religious, free speech or economic rights protected by the Constitution. “We do not want to unduly interfere with the important efforts of state and local officials to protect the public” from the virus, Barr wrote. “But the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis.” Lawsuits challenging restrictions on religious institutions are mounting even as some states begin to loosen their stay-at-home orders.


Remote Work? Not in a Digital Desert

As stay-at-home orders spread and millions of workers and students went online to do their jobs or homework assignments, it became clear that the digital playing field was far from level. Digital deserts, where residents have poor or little internet access, are holding rural areas back, educationally and economically. In the long term, advocates hope state lawmakers will push providers to build out their rural networks. Meanwhile, some ISPs, like AT&T, CenturyLink and T-Mobile, were removing data cap limits and keeping customers’ service intact if they couldn’t pay their bills due to COVID-19. Other providers, like Cox, Charter and Comcast, were offering free broadband access to pre-K, grammar, high school and college students during the pandemic.


Fewer but Deadlier Crashes

With many Americans parked at home, health professionals, delivery drivers and other essential workers have had the roadways mostly to themselves. But just because traffic was scanty (down by two-thirds nationally from March 1 to April 10, according to the analytics company StreetLight Data), the roads weren’t necessarily safer. Police in several states reported spikes in fatalities they linked to speeding or reckless driving, despite an overall drop in highway crashes during the pandemic compared with last year. Some drivers might think police are too busy dealing with the pandemic to chase speeders, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices. In response, many agencies have sent out public reminders that they are, in fact, still enforcing speed laws.


Coverage for Work Stoppages, Disasters

Lawmakers in at least seven states and Puerto Rico have introduced measures to require business interruption insurance to cover mandatory work stoppages resulting from the coronavirus emergency. Depending on the property insurance policy, business interruption coverage may protect companies from loss of income after a disaster, whether the loss results from a disaster-related closing or having to physically rebuild. But insurers point out that such policies do not typically cover losses related to viruses. As of mid-April, business interruption bills were pending in Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Puerto Rico.


Vaccine on Fast Track but Still Needs Time

As the number of COVID-19 cases rises across the United States, development of treatments and vaccines is high priority. To move new treatments to patients as quickly as possible, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration created CTAP (the Coronavirus Treatment Acceleration Program). As part of the emergency effort, the FDA currently has 284 clinical trials underway, with 10 therapeutic agents in active trials and another 15 in planning stages. The agency says it will take a minimum of 18 to 24 months before approval of a COVID-19 vaccine—but that timeline is significantly shorter than past vaccine developments. In 2003, for example, it took 20 months from sequencing the SARS virus to the first human vaccine study. Today, less than four months elapsed from sequencing COVID-19 to the first human study. The reality is that just 5% to 10% of the trials will succeed. The high failure rate means, as an FDA official put it in a recent NCSL webinar, “We need lots of shots on goal.”

—Kevin Frazzini
Kevin Frazzini is the senior editor of State Legislatures magazine.

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