Coronavirus: How It's Changing State Legislatures

5/11/2020

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“I’ve never seen anything like this.”

The coronavirus has redefined what constitutes an emergency and changed how legislatures do business.

By Julie Lays

It took just a few weeks for a virulent and vicious virus to hijack lives and turn our country upside down. 

By May 7, just a little more than four months from the first identified case in the United States, COVID-19, as the World Health Organization named the new strain of coronavirus, had infected more than 1.2 million people in all 50 states, along with Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It had killed 73,500 of them.

When the virus showed early signs of waning following social distancing and shutdown orders across the country, some states began easing restrictions and reopening some businesses. Many health officials feared this could result in a resurgence of the virus. But to the protestors at various state capitols, it was high time to get the country back to work and start triaging the economic bloodletting, virus or no virus.

Legislatures Responded

COVID-19 moved quickly through the states, and legislatures sprung to action just as swiftly. It didn’t take long for lawmakers to realize the disease was going to be more devastating than first believed. On Jan. 20, when the first case of the virus in the U.S. was identified in Washington state, most legislatures were in regular sessions, debating opioid addiction, tax cuts, school bus safety, e-scooters and a slew of other pressing issues—not the least being state budgets.

Just a few weeks later, many were passing emergency measures, appealing for assistance from the federal government, rushing through budget bills, cutting sessions short, closing capitols, moving primary election dates, meeting virtually and voting remotely. 

Some lawmakers caught the disease, making it dangerous to continue meeting in the close quarters of capitols.

“Legislatures have continued to do their work despite unprecedented challenges,” said Natalie Wood, director of NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening. “As early as mid-March, legislatures cut things short, suspended or postponed sessions to buy some time, and worked really quickly on emergency legislation and budgets. As usual, it has worked differently for everyone, and it’s not been without drama.” 

About half of state legislatures suspended legislative sessions. Before adjourning, most had put business as usual on hold to focus on mitigating the effects of the virus, deflating the hopes some members had for their sessions.

At least 38 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico had introduced bills supporting state action related to COVID-19, as of May 7. Several resolutions adjourned legislative sessions and adopted temporary rules to allow governing bodies to meet or vote electronically. Many bills appropriated funds focused on health topics such as insurance coverage, medical costs or telehealth services. Others involved paid leave, unemployment benefits, guidance for schools or workforce protections for those in quarantine or isolation. Still others addressed price gouging and eligibility for public services, temporarily prohibited evictions, ensured utility services or extended certain legal deadlines. 

Minnesota, like many states, had a substantial budget surplus forecast as recently as February, and Senator Paul Gazelka, the Republican majority leader, had been considering tax cuts. Now that’s out of the question. “The big-price-tag tax relief, there’s just no way we can do it right now,” he says. “I don’t know how we could do it.”

Instead, he adds, Minnesota lawmakers need to “get resources to the governor with special powers to purchase the equipment we need to fight COVID-19, that’s No. 1. At the same time, whatever we can do to make sure that private sector businesses do not fail and keep their employees, we need to focus on. The more incentives we give right now to businesses, I think, the better.”

Emergency Planning

Did the virus catch legislators off guard? Not exactly. There’s been a lot written about the possibility of a pandemic in recent years, but the realization that this was “the big one” took many a while to comprehend.

States have made plans for maintaining continuity of government during emergencies since the Cold War, when fear of a nuclear attack led to strategies for continuing operations should the whole legislature be wiped out. Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, another wave of emergency plans was developed, while other disaster plans addressed flooding, hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes and other natural events.

These plans have been adequate through Y2K scares and beyond, but the depth, breadth and life span of the current pandemic, its damage to the economy and its need for a lengthy social distancing response from the public raise COVID-19’s impact above all other recent emergencies.

“This public health emergency is like nothing we have ever seen before,” NCSL Executive Director Tim Storey told a CSPAN audience in late March. “Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Americans are being devastated by not just the virus and its health effects, but also the economic effect. We are in absolute uncharted waters. The economy was sailing along, then the wind just stopped.”

The Technology Difference

Improvements in technology and the public’s comfort using it to work remotely have benefited many legislatures, businesses and workers during this protracted emergency.
 
“Some states already used teleconferencing and remote testimony for committee meetings and even for legislator town halls,” Wood said. Oregon and Wisconsin had consitutional provisions in place allowing lawmakers to vote remotely in emergencies long before anyone had heard of COVID-19.

Wisconsin has led the way in figuring out how legislative bodies can meet in circumstances requiring social distancing. A change in state statutes in 2009 allowed lawmakers to “adopt such other measures that may be necessary and proper” to maintain the continuity of government. Lawmakers interpreted that to mean virtual sessions, and leaders of both houses spent a few weeks with staff fine-tuning how to run Skype sessions.

“We’ve been able to create a whole infrastructure, including new web-based applications that allow us to try to mimic what happens on the floor in a virtual setting,” Senate President Roger Roth (R) said, noting that during crises, democracies must be able to show the public that they remain strong.

The Utah Legislature passed legislation before adjourning to permit meeting and voting electronically during public health emergencies. The legislature was able to end the session on time in mid-March, and the new rules allowed members to call themselves back into special session remotely in mid-April to address COVID-19 issues.

House Speaker Brad Wilson (R) said the break gave “the amazing staff” time to create a system to make it all happen and provide each member with remote one-on-one training.

“It’s crazy,” Wilson said just after going through a dry run before the special session, which was live-streamed. “I’m standing on the dais with three big-screen TVs showing all 74 members of the House. It’s an amazing moment in time for us as a state to be able to do the people’s business from the state Capitol but with only one person there, with the rest of the members in their home districts serving their constituents.” 

Although working remotely is technically possible for most legislators, state laws, legislative rules or even state constitutions may not allow remote sessions. Legislatures must consider what it means to be “present to vote,” what constitutes a quorum and how to make the process accessible to the public, among other provisions. Chambers that move forward with remote voting have to navigate these issues and contemplate how to mirror, as much as possible, what happens on the floor. 

Not everyone is convinced remote meetings are productive. When the Connecticut General Assembly was debating whether to suspend its session, Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney (D) wasn’t so sure meeting remotely would suffice.

“It’d be fairly difficult to do that, to have a free-flowing debate including the offering of floor amendments, things of that sort,” he said. “It’s totally unprecedented. I’ve been in our General Assembly for 40 years, 12 in the House, 28 in the Senate. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

For Colorado, the debate over whether to suspend session wasn’t so much the open meeting conflict as it was the state constitutional requirement that the legislature “conclude its work after 120 days.” Did that mean 120 days in a row?

Lawmakers couldn’t agree, so they asked the state Supreme Court to decide. The court ruled 4-3 that during a state of emergency, the days do not have to be counted consecutively. 

“We feel that it is in the best interest of all Coloradans to recess the session until citizens can safely participate in their democracy,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg (D) tweeted.

Making It Work

Throughout the spring, while some state legislatures continued meeting in capitols, others postponed or adjourned until a later date, and a few took the virtual route. And special sessions, or discussions about them, are popping up, even in states that had finished sessions or were not scheduled to meet in 2020. 

Methods for meeting will continue to vary. In at least 15 states, two territories and the District of Columbia, one chamber or both adopted temporary rules or enacted legislation to allow for virtual meetings and remote voting, often with at least one member on the floor. Other legislatures will keep meeting in person, but these convenings may require some creativity.

“Legislatures, as we all know, are made up of innovative and committed people who have problem-solved throughout history when faced with extraordinary times such as these,” NCSL’s Wood said.

For the New Hampshire House of Representatives, the largest state legislative body in the country, the challenge was finding a place big enough for all 400 representatives to meet while practicing social distancing. The state constitution says it must meet in person, so House Speaker Steve Shurtleff (D) was seeking alternatives, including large auditoriums. 

“We have to find a facility to possibly space people out to meet in person,” Shurtleff said. 

In Arkansas, lawmakers met in a college basketball arena so they could maintain distancing as they adopted new rules and voted on emergency legislation. 

In Virginia, senators chose a room in a science museum, while representatives met on the Capitol lawn.

States Lead On

Whether remotely or in chambers, governors and lawmakers remain on the front lines in the fight against the pandemic. But there’s no quick fix for the destruction the virus leaves behind. Even as the rate of infection declines, legislators will face the challenge of rebuilding economies at a time when revenues are expected to take unprecedented hits. Legislatures will have to make hard choices to balance budgets while continuing to fund education, transportation, criminal justice, unemployment, health care and more. 

A pandemic this epic requires a response as impressive as we sail on into unchartered waters. 

Julie Lays is the editor of State Legislatures magazine.

TRANSPORTATION: Highway traffic was reduced to a fraction of normal in Portland, Ore. America’s ground transportation systems are in a tailspin due to the COVID-19 crisis, according to Doug Shinkle, NCSL transportation expert. Typically clogged roads are largely empty and gas tax revenue has plunged due to less driving. Traffic crashes and deaths are down in some states, but extreme speeding by motorists is up. Public transit systems are struggling to keep drivers and passengers safe while providing transportation for essential workers.

HUMAN SERVICES: On April 1, California public schools, like Kelly Elementary in Carlsbad, Calif., above, were closed for the remainder of the school year. Nationwide, 22 million low-income kids rely on free and reduced-price school meals. With schools closed to limit the spread of the virus, many children have been left without the only nutritious food they will receive all day, according to NCSL’s Emerson National Hunger Fellow, Sean Walsh. In response, many districts have started critical pick-up or delivery programs providing breakfast and lunch. In addition, Congress is giving states the option to establish a Pandemic EBT program to provide income-eligible families with electronic benefit transfer cards loaded with $5.70 for each day that school is closed to replace the cost of school breakfast and lunch.

HIGHER EDUCATION: The Miami Dade Community College campus in downtown Miami was shut down due to the pandemic. “It’s important to understand the demographics of today’s higher education student,” says NCSL’s Sunny Deye, program director for postsecondary education. “Nearly half of undergraduate students attend community colleges, and almost 40% of today’s higher education students are working adults.” These students face additional challenges during the pandemic, including access to affordable transportation, child care, food and housing, Deye says.

MILITARY: Military police in Rhode Island monitored cars entering the state with out-of-state license plates, instructing them to self-quarantine for 14 days. Close to 50,000 National Guard members are on duty in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Under state control, guard units are supporting virus testing sites, facilitating logistics and transportation, staffing state emergency operations centers, distributing food and other supplies, and building medical field hospitals. Federal funds are paying for most guard activities during the pandemic, according to NCSL’s Jim Reed, program director for military and veterans affairs.

DoubleDuty

Legislators who are also health care professionals are serving on two fronts these days.

By Suzanne Weiss

Amid the nation’s worst public health crisis in a century, a growing number of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals serving in state legislatures have answered the call to help on—and behind—the front lines.

Some are working 12-hour shifts doing triage and treating patients at beleaguered hospitals in their districts. Others are working as paramedics or volunteering at local clinics, and still others are playing key roles in coordinating their states’ or counties’ response to the crisis.

At the epicenter of the pandemic, New York Assemblywoman Karines Reyes (D) returned in early April to her job as a nurse at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx after she learned of the severe staffing shortage there. Around the same time, Tennessee Senator Katrina Robinson (D), an intensive-care nurse, left her home in Memphis to volunteer her services in New York City.

Hospitals Working at Capacity

In Colorado, which has among the highest rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the West, Kyle Mullica (D), a House freshman, has been working long shifts as an emergency room nurse at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver, one of the state’s largest hospitals.

Reyes and Mullica describe their experiences over the past several weeks as harrowing.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” said Reyes, who participated in relief efforts in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017. In an interview with the New York Post, she described nightmarish conditions while working the medical/surgical units and said she was stunned by how quickly patients suffering from the virus deteriorated. 

When asked how many of her patients have died, she answered simply, “Too many.”
She said the hospital is “at capacity” and most of the floors have been devoted entirely to treating coronavirus patients. Even family waiting areas had hospital beds in them after they were converted into medical rooms, Reyes said.

“It’s almost like you can see a tsunami coming—and there’s nothing that you can do about it,” Mullica said in an audio diary he recorded for The Colorado Sun, a Denver-based news outlet, in early April. “What’s so scary about this is we have no tools. All hospitals are able to do—until they figure out antivirals—is treat those symptoms. And as a provider, for me at least, that’s really scary. That scares the hell out of me.”

Some Rural Areas Ready

Some legislators are working where the battle against COVID-19 is less intense, at least for now. Texas Senator Donna Campbell (R) is an emergency room physician who divides her time between two hospitals in rural counties south of Austin that so far have had fewer than 100 confirmed cases of coronavirus and no deaths.

“Of course, we have devoted a lot of time and effort to sanitizing and other precautionary measures, but our overall emergency room census is down,” she said. “The big difference is that we have many, many more phone calls to the ER every day from people wanting to know, ‘Do I need to come in?’”

Campbell said that, so far, Texas hasn’t run short on equipment and personnel like other areas of the nation. “We still have ample capacity in terms of hospital beds, intensive-care units and ventilators. Texas is ready to take care of its citizens.”

Her days as a lawmaker are filled with fixing problems and answering questions—from school superintendents, mayors, court officials, health departments and others. “About 75% of everything we do these days is COVID-related,” she said.

As the crisis unfolds, physician-legislators like Campbell are pitching in on a variety of fronts:

  • In Utah, three physicians who serve in the House—Stewart Barlow (R), Suzanne Harrison (D) and Ray Ward (R)—organized an appeal for businesses that use personal protective equipment to donate N95 masks, which protect against airborne droplets from sneezes or coughs, to hospitals.
  • New Jersey Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D), an internist and director of the Burlington County Health Department, is leading the county’s coronavirus task force, which is grappling with high levels of infection among jail inmates and nursing home residents.
  • Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia (D), a paramedic and emergency medical services instructor, is being dispatched on ambulance calls in his hometown of Pueblo, about 112 miles south of Denver. He is among several lawmakers interviewed by State Legislatures magazine who predicted that the pandemic will have a lasting effect on policymaking, “including how the legislature does its work. Once something this significant happens, it’s impossible not to change. We’ll need to focus on being better prepared.”

A Bipartisan Fight

California Senator Richard Pan (D), a pediatrician who currently chairs the Senate Health Committee, agrees about the need for preparation. “This pandemic is a stark reminder of the cost of not having a robust public health system in place,” he said.

During his 10 years in the California Legislature, Pan has advocated for increasing vaccination rates, boosting funding for county health departments and augmenting the state’s emergency-response capabilities.

“In the public health world, there’s always talk about outbreaks like this and how to be ready for them,” he said. “Every year, we have something to worry about. In 2009, it was H1N1, then it was pertussis, then the Zika virus and, in the past couple of years, measles.”

At the same time, Pan said, a series of federal and state budget cuts have steadily eroded the capacity of the public health system—reducing the number of epidemiologists and other medical workers, for example, and forcing the closure of 11 testing laboratories statewide.

Pan points out that the first known instance of community spread (person-to-person transmission) of COVID-19 in the United States was in Sacramento, his district, in mid-February. Since then, the city of more than 2 million has had about 700 confirmed cases and 26 deaths. “Had it not been for early action, those numbers would be a lot higher. We haven’t seen a big spike, so I would say that we’re doing OK.”

Over the last two months, Pan has volunteered at a county health clinic, met with state and county officials, tweeted regular updates and spent a half-hour every Friday morning answering callers’ questions on a local AM radio show.

Pan said the bipartisan nature of the state’s fight against the coronavirus is heartening. “We have people working together at every level, and that’s what we need. Public health should never be a partisan issue.”

Suzanne Weiss is a freelance writer in Denver and a frequent contributor to State Legislatures.

Pandemic Leads to ‘Infodemic

Arkansas legislators meet in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock basketball arena.

Policymakers can combat misinformation with facts.

By Kristine Goodwin

As COVID-19 spreads, so too does misinformation, creating what data and health scientists at the World Health Organization have deemed an “infodemic.” It’s what happens when we have what the organization calls an “overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

So rampant is misinformation that WHO began tracking and dispelling myths on its myth-busters webpage and offering shareable graphics that communicate science clearly for the public.

In an era when so many have what amounts to a Google degree in COVID-19, state and local policymakers are showing how data and research offer both an antidote to misinformation and a path forward. To cut through the clutter, policymakers can consider asking the following questions to test the merits of evidence and decide how to use it.

  1. How are you defining “evidence”?
    Policymaking through an infodemic merits a healthy dose of skepticism. When you hear claims about what “the evidence shows,” ask how it’s being defined. Does it reflect an expert’s professional judgment, an anecdotal study, a study with a control group? While professional opinions and anecdotal observations have value, evidence that’s been tested is more trustworthy.

    Some states have defined what constitutes evidence in legislation or through definitions established by state agencies. Lawmakers value high-quality, causal evidence that shows whether a policy will produce a specific result. Knowing your state’s definitions, and clarifying them when needed, can ensure that everyone is speaking the same language.
  2. What’s your source?
    Driven by a mission to inform and protect the public, many federal sources offer reliable, science-based information and guidance. These include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and coronavirus.gov, a partnership of the CDC, the White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Many state and territorial health agencies also are good resources. Several national organizations committed to delivering unbiased, bipartisan information, like NCSL, track and post federal and state actions daily.

    But with so many news and information outlets, it can be hard to judge a source’s quality and credibility. It can help to know if a study has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, such as The New England Journal of Medicine, because that tells you it was reviewed by independent experts. Not every study cited in today’s 24-hour news cycle has gone through such a process.

    To get information into decision-makers’ hands more quickly, researchers and online publishing services, known as preprint servers, have begun posting study findings before they’ve gone through peer review. Such drafts may have value to those wanting to learn about emerging research, but it’s important to understand they are preliminary and subject to critique.
  3. How strong is the evidence?
    “Evidence hierarchies” and online research clearinghouses rank evidence based on the rigor of the supporting methodology, from anecdote and opinion to causality. The more highly the evidence is ranked, the more likely it is to produce its intended effect.

    Proving that a treatment can cause a specific result is the strongest type of evidence. That kind of proof comes through clinical trials, health care’s gold standard for demonstrating that a treatment is safe and effective, according to the National Institutes of Health. Concerning COVID-19, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved any therapeutics, but some are under investigation and will be tested through such trials.

    Public health officials didn’t recommend the public use of cloth face masks, for example, until recent high-quality studies confirmed that asymptomatic carriers of the virus could transmit it to others. This prompted CDC officials in April to recommend that everyone use face coverings in public settings.
  4. What am I missing and how do I balance competing priorities?
    Dealing with a novel virus, by definition, puts us in new territory. Public health officials and lawmakers are learning and refining and responding in ways that reflect available data and research findings. We don’t always have access to the evidence we need to make real-time decisions, so ask questions of colleagues and experts to learn how the available evidence, imperfect as it may be, can help inform your policy decisions
  5. How can I be sure to communicate reliable information?
    There is no playbook for communicating during a crisis like this one. But policymakers can draw from a public repository of tools and best practices that grows by the day. Case in point: The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials has developed a crisis communication guide that uses “message maps” to help organize complex scientific information into easily understood messages.

    Policymakers also can look to other states’ communication strategies and publicly available data visualization tools and share that information with colleagues and constituents—like the U.S. maps that illustrate how the virus is spreading across communities and states. NCSL has summarized these communications approaches and linked them to templates and other online resources. The CDC’s infographics share the facts about COVID-19 and highlight effective crisis communication strategies. Among them: Before distributing information, fact-check it with subject-matter experts, because “one incorrect message can cause harmful behaviors and may result in people losing trust in future messages.”

Kristine Goodwin is a program director in NCSL’s Employment, Labor and Retirement Program.

Voting After the Virus

Elections may never be the same following the COVID-19.

By Amanda Zoch

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered the 2020 election landscape. By May 1, at least 18 states had postponed presidential preference primaries, state primaries, runoffs or a combination of these. Georgia and Louisiana—the first two states to delay their elections—have now shifted their primaries for a second time, and New York has canceled its presidential primary.
Many of the postponed primaries are slated for June 2, which—with at least nine presidential and seven state primaries—is now set to be a second Super Tuesday. With former Vice President Joe Biden as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, the state primaries may have the races to watch.

Several states have rescheduled for even later dates, including New Jersey, which moved its primaries to July 7 from June 2. More delays may be coming.

How voters’ anxiety over the pandemic will affect their voting behavior is hard to know. Rescheduling elections, however, allows them to stay home during the worst of the crisis. And it gives states more time to adapt to the challenges of running elections during a public health emergency—moving polling places away from assisted living facilities, protecting voters and poll workers from spreading the disease, making special arrangements for certain voters (those in quarantine, for example), all while keeping it fair for everyone.

Voting by Mail

Many state legislatures and governors are looking to reduce potential health risks by expanding absentee or mail-in voting, at least for the primaries. Thirty-four states allow any voter to request an absentee ballot for any reason. Several of the states that require voters to supply a reason before receiving an absentee ballot have clarified that COVID-19 counts as a valid excuse.

The Granite State, for example, has a temporary emergency order allowing anyone to vote absentee using the “disabled” reason. New Hampshire Senator Melanie Levesque (D) would like that to be permanent and clearer for voters. “Enacting no-excuse absentee voting would give the public more certainty,” she says, so that “they can choose how to vote if they have concerns about safety.”

Lawmakers in some states have also made it easier for voters to obtain their absentee ballots. Idaho launched an online absentee ballot application option in March, becoming the 11th state to do so. Election officials in 10 states decided to mail absentee ballot applications directly to all registered voters for the states’ primaries. And Michigan and Nevada will send actual absentee ballots—not just applications—to all eligible voters.

Concerned about voter safety, Ohio Senator Matt Huffman (R) wanted to build time into the process. “I introduced a bill that provided Ohioans with an additional 42 days to vote by mail for free in this election,” he said. The legislation extended the ballot return deadline from March 17 to April 28 and was incorporated into a broader COVID-19 bill, which the legislature approved unanimously.

Five states currently conduct all elections by mail—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington—and COVID-19 has encouraged others to consider a permanent or temporary shift in that direction. Some states are undertaking mail-in voting on a smaller scale or on a shorter time frame. Alaska, for example, enacted a law allowing the state to conduct all-mail elections, but only during the current state of emergency.

Campaigns Adapting, Too

Candidates and citizen initiative campaigns also have been affected by stay-at-home orders and mandated social distancing. Unable to gather physical signatures, many of these campaigns have been effectively stalled. Given the circumstances, candidates and initiative sponsors have looked to legislatures and governors for accommodations, such as extending deadlines and using more electronic options for circulation, signatures and filing.

Vermont lawmakers suspended requirements that candidates circulate petitions and collect signatures to get on the ballot. Legislation has been introduced in New Jersey to extend candidate petition filing deadlines and to waive certain related petition signature requirements.

Executive actions have addressed petition concerns in some states. New Jersey’s governor issued an order allowing candidates to circulate petitions online. Utah’s governor issued two orders, one allowing remote filing of candidate declarations, the other permitting electronic circulation of candidate and initiative petitions. Voters still must print the petitions and provide a wet (not electronic) signature, but now they can scan the signed petition and return it via fax or email.

How Permanent Are the Changes?

Whether the election hurdles thrown up by the pandemic can be cleared by November remains to be seen. For now, states have adapted their primary election procedures to ensure a safe, secure and private ballot for every eligible voter—no one knows, though, whether states will make the changes permanent or be forced to alter them again.

Amanda Zoch is an NCSL legislative policy specialist and a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow.

Covid-19 and the Census

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There are things you can count on: Mom’s welcoming arms, daisies in June and the decennial census, among them. Now Covid-19 is wreaking havoc on all the good planning that has gone into the 2020 census.

Most people know we count every person living in the United States once every decade, and they probably think of the census as a point of national pride. Policy people know the “enumeration” undergirds the distribution of federal money to the states, is the basis for reassigning U.S. House seats and provides the data the states use for redistricting. But, for many, that’s as far as the interest goes.

The census has adhered to the same cast-in-concrete timeline since 1980. Census Day is April 1 of the year ending in zero; data for divvying up congressional seats is due on the president’s desk no later than Dec. 31 of the same year. And redistricting data—as defined in Public Law 94-171, which was pushed forward by NCSL in our first year of existence—is due to the states no later than March 31 of the year ending in “1.”

Then came the coronavirus.

Thanks to Covid-19, the timeline for gathering the data is delayed. While it’s never been easier for households to respond to the census, not everyone does it without a personal knock on the door. It’s standard operating procedure for the bureau to send workers to every nook and cranny of the nation to make sure the count is as accurate as possible—something the bureau decided can’t happen now because of the virus.

Taking a safety-first approach, the bureau delayed step one in the counting process: Field operations, will now begin on June 1, an understandable decision given state shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders.

With step one delayed, it’s no surprise the other steps will be delayed as well. Step two, data collection, will end 90 days later than originally planned, on Oct. 31, 2020. Steps three and four, data preparation and the release of public data, respectively, are accordingly held up.

Trouble is, Congress long ago set the deadlines for the release of at least two sets of information: the congressional apportionment data and the redistricting data. For that reason, the bureau requested in mid-April that Congress approve a four-month delay for the release of both data sets: The apportionment data deadline would move from Dec. 31, 2020, to April 30, 2021; the redistricting data deadline from March 31, 2021, to July 31, 2021.

Will Congress approve? That’s to be determined, though it’s hard to imagine they’d require workers to go into the field during a pandemic.

Will this be the only delay required? The virus’ trajectory will be the guide.

How will states respond? We’ll see. Each faces a unique set of constitutional, statutory and election date challenges.

Wendy Underhill

Policy Impacts of COVID-19

The widespread impact of COVID-19 on all areas of our lives has been remarkable. State budgets are being hit hard, driving lawmakers to pass legislation to protect and support vital programs and policies as best they can. Here’s an overview of just how deep and wide the virus’ influence has been.

HEALTH CARE

As the novel coronavirus began to spread across the country, the public health and health care systems were the first sectors affected and the first to respond.

To date, governors in every state and territory have declared emergencies, allowing greater authority and flexibility to respond to COVID-19. Even with many state legislatures suspending or postponing sessions, more than 20 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have passed more than 35 health-related bills that appropriated money and supported other efforts in the health care and public health systems. Here’s a look at state responses to the pandemic. 

Bolstering the health care system

To address concerns about health care system capacity, states loosened requirements around the health care workforce and telehealth. Most of the changes are for the duration of the pandemic only and, to date, have been led by the executive branch. 

More than 40 states have modified licensing requirements and expedited approvals for physicians and other health care providers to recruit out-of-state, inactive and retired providers to expand the state’s workforce. At least 29 states also expanded the scope of practice for nurse practitioners and physician assistants, allowing them greater independence in providing care to patients.

Telehealth was used early in the crisis, particularly to help determine whether people’s symptoms required a test or hospital visit. Other uses included managing chronic conditions and providing mental health care or substance use disorder treatment at home to reduce the need to visit a health care facility.

Federal and state action expanded telehealth by ensuring coverage and relaxing a number of restrictions, such as requirements related to providers and telehealth methods. Although governors’ orders led many state changes, legislatures in Alaska, Maine, New Jersey and Puerto Rico also took similar action.

Ensuring affordability and accessibility of care

As the virus spreads, coverage and access to needed health care services, including COVID-19 testing and treatment, remains critical. Federal and state leaders first focused on reducing patients’ costs, such as copays and deductibles, for testing.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires insurers to cover testing for the virus without any cost to patients or prior authorization requirements. The federal law also gives states the option to cover COVID-19 testing and test-related visits for uninsured individuals. So far, 12 states have taken advantage of this flexibility, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

A handful of states have gone further, adopting measures to waive cost sharing for treatment as well as testing, through mandates or insurer agreements. Many insurers have also committed to waiving costs associated with seeking treatment. 

For individuals without health insurance, 11 states and the District of Columbia have created a special open enrollment period on their state-based exchanges, allowing anyone to buy a plan. Other states are allowing longer grace periods for premium payments or placing moratoriums on the cancellation of insurance policies for not paying premiums.

All states have received Medicaid Section 1135 waivers—available during emergencies—to ease requirements in areas like prior authorizations for services, provider credentialing, and reporting and oversight. States also are exercising flexibility using State Plan Amendments, Section 1115 waivers, and home- and community-based services waivers.

Reopening states

In an effort to flatten the curve and prevent health systems from being overwhelmed, most governors or state health commissioners issued statewide stay-at-home orders, closed schools and certain businesses, and placed limits on gatherings, according to tracking by the National Governors Association. As state leaders begin easing restrictions, they are closely watching the data.

Widespread testing and contact tracing are key to reopening states, according to most public health experts and guidance from the White House, NGA, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and others.

Testing and contact tracing help monitor and control the spread of the virus by identifying hot spots or outbreaks and isolating infected people.

Despite progress in the last few weeks, widespread testing for COVID-19 still lags in terms of per capita testing. At the lower end, one report estimates the U.S. needs 750,000 tests per week, while another estimate suggests millions per day.

While state leaders seek more testing kits, state and local public health departments are scrambling to ramp up the workforce to the level necessary for comprehensive contact tracing.

“We have the knowledge and the skill [to do contact tracing]—we just need the numbers,” said ASTHO’s chief executive officer, Mike Fraser, in a recent NCSL webinar.

The country needs close to 100,000 tracers, according to ASTHO. State needs range from 176 in less populous states like Wyoming to 12,000 or more in states like Texas and California.

Looking ahead

Most experts agree that social distancing may be necessary for many months ahead, and many argue that states won’t fully return to “normal” until there is a vaccine.

While effective treatment for COVID-19 is likely to come more quickly, researchers, pharmaceutical companies and federal agencies are working to accelerate the development of a vaccine. Recent reports indicate progress in identifying potential treatments and vaccines, though many estimate it will be 12 to18 months before a vaccine is available.

Still, public health experts caution about obstacles in the road ahead. CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield warned that states could experience significant challenges this winter. “We’re going to have the flu epidemic and the coronavirus epidemic at the same time,” he told The Washington Post.

Federal and state leaders also will be tackling emerging consequences of the virus, including the disproportionate effect it has had on communities of color, the financial hit already unstable rural health facilities have taken, and the potential for increased enrollment in Medicaid as a result of the economic downturn.

The pandemic will continue to evolve, as will the responses from public health and health care systems to improve prevention, mitigation and treatment of the virus.

State legislatures are likely to take a larger role in the coming months, as many reconvene not only to tackle ongoing issues and new funding challenges, but also to examine and confront the weaknesses in public health and health care systems exposed by the coronavirus.

Kate Blackman

From Boom to Bust

States welcomed the new decade and 2020 with strong economic growth and healthy finances. Tax collections were robust. Spending was keeping pace with revenues. Rainy day funds were full, unemployment was low and business was booming. True, a few dark clouds hung over oil- and gas-producing states because of low energy prices, but, by and large, the fiscal outlook for states was bright.

Fast forward a few weeks, and boom! It’s all gone in a flash with the arrival of the coronavirus. Heading into fiscal year 2021, states face an economic downturn of unprecedented magnitude and a dismal fiscal outlook.

Efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 with stay-at-home orders have wreaked havoc on state budgets. Not only did state revenues come to a screeching halt as economic activity paused, but the legislative process itself was interrupted. Most states suspended legislative sessions in mid-March, leaving about half the states without enacted budgets.

Since then, lawmakers have scrambled to ensure continued funding because state laws require balanced budgets prior to the new fiscal year, which starts for 46 states on July 1. At the end of April, 30 states had enacted FY 2021 budgets. In some cases, they were modified versions, while other states passed skeletal or bare-bones budgets that can be filled in later or approved continuing resolutions. Some states took more unusual measures. For example, New Jersey changed the date of its fiscal year—pushing it back three months, from July 1 to Oct. 1. Kentucky lawmakers diverted from the regular two-year budget and passed an annual budget because of economic uncertainty. Sixteen of the states with enacted FY 2021 budgets have biennial budgets that were approved during 2019 legislative sessions, long before COVID-19 was on anyone’s radar.

The landscape has changed. Now, thousands of people are sick and millions more are out of work. Health care spending and unemployment benefits have skyrocketed, while state tax collections have plunged. As a result, many states with previously enacted FY 2021 budgets will need to reconvene to reconcile those budgets with the new economic reality.

Yet, what that new reality will look like remains unclear. State economists are struggling to grasp the magnitude of the revenue impact. Sales tax figures for March (the first month of mass closures) are just starting to come in. Income tax collections were delayed by extended filing deadlines, making forecasting more difficult. Early estimates of state revenue losses are upwards of 15 to 20% and increasing the longer the shutdown continues. At least 12 states have already authorized the use of reserve funds to address lost revenues.

It’s still too early to know what measures legislators will take to balance state budgets when they convene. However, some insight can be gleaned by looking back at what they did during the last recession to address big budget shortfalls. In 2009-10, states generally made across-the-board budget reductions first, followed by specific cuts and public employee furloughs. Many tax increases were temporary and often targeted high-income earners. States also raised revenues by broadening income and sales tax bases through reduced exemptions and credits.

Looking ahead, the future for state finances seems bleak. But there is one small glimmer amidst the gloom: Most states are better prepared for a downturn now than ever before. Having learned an important lesson during the Great Recession, policymakers took measures over the past decade to build up their rainy day funds. At the beginning of 2020, states, on average, had reserve funds hovering around 10% of general fund spending. This won’t last long if business activity doesn’t resume quickly, but it will provide a little breathing room as policymakers grapple with the catastrophic revenue fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mandy Rafool

EDUCATION

Adapting to virtual learning, with challenges ahead
Education has been dramatically affected by COVID-19. All states eventually shut down college campuses and K-12 schools through at least mid-May, and most turned to online learning. School leaders and teachers face significant challenges to ensure students have access to technology, whether that be devices or internet connections.

And, as not all teachers are trained to deliver instruction in this way, they had to learn quickly how to adapt their delivery to a virtual platform, whether their students were in kindergarten or graduating seniors. Schools, too, are struggling to get materials and meals to students in rural areas who qualify for free and reduced lunch. Meanwhile, higher education is working to ensure that students who were quickly displaced have a safe place to live and access to distance learning.
Even as schools—and the policymakers who work with them—face these immediate and significant challenges, state policymakers are trying to determine how best to help them. They have applied for waivers from the federal government’s required testing, held harmless K-12 grades, released schools from taking attendance and suspended enforcement of accountability requirements for struggling K-12 schools.

As legislatures reconvene this summer and fall, they will need to deal with not only the immediate challenges that come with attempting to reopen a school system by fall, but also the long-term impact to the entire system. They will need to address how the education system can help students recover from the learning loss sustained this spring and through the summer and the mental health challenges that have been exacerbated during this turbulent time. They also will have the daunting task of determining how to ensure that inevitable education budget cuts will not further the inequities exposed since the Great Recession and protect those school-related factors that most affect student success.

Michelle Exstrom

EMPLOYMENT

Job front remains rocky for some industries

State economies face a long, steep climb out of record-breaking unemployment claims, with millions of Americans out of work. Especially hard hit were jobs in leisure and hospitality, health care and social assistance, and business and professional services areas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those three sectors alone lost 572,200 jobs in March.

Yet, despite those numbers, some industries, such as shipping and delivery, are booming. Amazon is hiring more than 175,000 workers and UPS and FedEx are hiring to help deliver the growing amount of e-commerce orders. Grocery stores, pharmacies and other major retailers are bumping up their staff as well. Walmart hired 150,000 new workers and promises to add another 50,000 to its payroll, and other big-box stores including Target and Costco are also looking to ramp up hiring. Gig jobs in food delivery are thriving.

Online learning companies are hiring thousands of teachers, and remote meeting and communications companies are trying to keep up with demand as millions of students and workers now regularly using telecommunication and videoconferencing tools.

The question remains, as states begin letting businesses open, how many jobs will return?

Linnette Vasquez

WORKERS’ COMPENSATION

Who’s covered?

An important employment issue that has arisen in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis is whether workers’ compensation comes into play for employees infected with the virus.

Workers’ compensation covers medical expenses and lost wages when workers become injured or ill as a direct result of their job. But, generally, it does not cover routine community-spread illnesses such as the cold or flu because these conditions cannot be directly tied to the workplace. Severe respiratory illnesses among firefighters and other first responders, however, are presumed to be work-related and covered by workers’ compensation in at least 20 states.

So, should COVID-19 be treated differently than a cold or flu? Without state intervention, perhaps. The determination would likely be made on a case-by-case basis by the workers’ compensation insurer and may depend on specific circumstances, such as who infected the worker and what that worker was doing at the time.

State policymakers can define the extent to which workers infected with COVID-19 are covered. A handful of states, including Minnesota, North Dakota and Washington, have strengthened the coverage for first responders, health care workers and other essential workers with a high risk of exposure.

And, for some, workers’ compensation may not be the best option. Other benefits, such as paid sick leave or personal health insurance, may provide faster support with less red tape. In COVID-19 cases resulting in loss of life, however, workers’ compensation can provide valuable financial death benefits for a worker’s family.

Josh Cunningham

HOUSING AND HUMAN SERVICES

Vulnerable populations face heightened risk

The COVID-19 crisis is affecting households at all socioeconomic levels; however, the economic pain is being experienced most acutely by the same populations that were disadvantaged going into the crisis. Race, ethnicity, occupation, social status and the presence of a disability have been historic drivers of economic disparity in the United States, and COVID-19 has laid them bare again.

The shortage of safe, stable and affordable housing in the United States was severe before the COVID-19 pandemic, and with millions of workers losing their incomes, many more adults and families are now unable to make rent and mortgage payments. COVID-19 is giving rise to concerns about a potential new wave of homelessness, and to calls for strategies to mitigate the health and safety risks faced by those already experiencing homelessness.

Child welfare and early care and education systems have experienced significant disruptions, putting tremendous strain on children, youth and families, as well as the caseworkers, caregivers, home visitors and early intervention specialists who support the healthy development and well-being of the next generation.

COVID-19 has put the vulnerable populations of children and youth in child welfare systems at heightened risk and is asking more of the already-stretched child welfare workforce. NCSL has developed four resource guides to inform legislators and legislative staff about issues and potential remedies related to child welfare caseworkers, congregate care facilities, foster and kinship caregivers, and older system-involved youth.

COVID-19 IS GIVING RISE TO

Child care may be one of the most pronounced crises within the larger COVID-19 emergency. Advocates are already calling on state and federal lawmakers to address the economically unsustainable pact of families, child care providers and employers at large.

COVID-19 has become a Gordian knot for families bound together by child support or visitation orders. Parents on both sides of the financial equation—noncustodial parents with child support obligations and custodial parents at risk of not receiving payments—are concerned about the flow of child support payments. Questions and concerns about court-ordered access and visitation amid a pandemic are also on the table.

Lawmakers at all levels are being called on to address the basic needs of millions of Americans, and, in the months ahead, constituents will be looking to their legislators for strategies to rapidly connect people to a brighter, safer future. Visit NCSL’s Human Services COVID-19 Resource Hub or contact NCSL staff with your research or technical assistance request.

Wade Fickler

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Courts, law enforcement see big impacts

COVID-19 is forcing federal, state and local governments to make decisions that will affect the big-picture operation of their criminal and juvenile justice systems.

Courts at every level have postponed or canceled proceedings. Many jurisdictions have converted to virtual court proceedings when possible. The U.S. Supreme Court building is closed but will remain open for official business. The justices postponed March and April oral arguments but will continue to hold conferences and issue scheduled orders, with some justices participating by telephone.

The daily work of law enforcement officers also has been greatly affected by the coronavirus. Many departments have expanded citation in lieu of arrest policies or limited arrests within already established statutory limits. Arrest rates and jail bookings have decreased significantly, and jail populations have fallen in local jurisdictions by as much as 70% in some cases.

The federal Bureau of Prisons, state corrections departments, local jail administrators and juvenile justice agencies all have taken steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in adult correctional and juvenile detention facilities. For example, facilities are releasing vulnerable people and low-level offenders from jails and prisons when possible and reducing or suspending visitation.

Sarah Brown

No News Is Bad News

Fading local news coverage leaves the public uninformed.

By Mark Wolf

The numbers were staggering.

New Jersey newspapers were hemorrhaging red ink and shedding journalists since the beginning of the Great Recession. With those reporters and editors went much of the stellar coverage of local and state governments, long a hallmark of the state’s newspapers. Readers followed.

“We saw a dramatic decline locally,” said New Jersey Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D). “We saw 400 jobs lost at a local newspaper [The Bergen Record, which broke the infamous “Bridgegate” story], the Asbury Park Press lost 58% of its subscribers, the [Newark] Star Ledger lost 55%. The community felt disconnected from local government and what they were doing.”

Hurricane Sandy, which devasted the East Coast in 2012, revealed another effect of the loss. Because of a lack of access to local news, “most of us tracked the storm’s impact on South Jersey from then-mayor Michael Nutter in Philadelphia, who gave updates on the South Jersey communities,” Greenwald said.

Legislative and statehouse coverage dwindled sharply. David Chen, the last chief of The New York Times’ Trenton bureau, which closed in 2008, wrote that during his tenure “as many as 30 newspaper, wire service, television and radio journalists would be working on press row” at the New Jersey statehouse. On a return visit in 2017, “I counted six: two Bloomberg reporters, three for The Record and one from New Jersey 101.5 FM.”

New Jersey Senator Robert Singer (R) adds that full-time statehouse reporters understood the legislature. “They would ask the right questions,” he said. “They truly became part of the statehouse. When newspapers were having problems, the first person they cut was the dedicated statehouse reporter.”

Now, he added, “The public is totally unaware of many of the things we’re doing.”

Both Singer and Greenwald said a dearth of local news outlets makes it more challenging for public policy arguments to be heard and to provide the needed checks and balances on public officials.

A Unique Partnership

In the wake of this dwindling coverage was born the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, a first-in-the-nation initiative to provide public funding to meet the news and information needs of local communities. The consortium was conceived by the press advocacy group Free Press Action and sponsored by Greenwald and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D). Singer is a co-sponsor.

Funded at $2 million—currently frozen because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s ruinous effect on the state’s budget—the consortium is a partnership with five state universities that will award grants to projects intended to buttress local news coverage in a variety of innovative ways.

“I thought it created a unique partnership centered in five of our universities, which are the teaching ground for the next generation,” Greenwald said.

While the consortium was being formulated, backers held community meetings around the state to solicit ideas about what kind of efforts should be funded, said Mike Rispoli, New Jersey state director for Free Press Action and a former statehouse reporter for Gannett’s newspapers in the state.

“We heard [interest in] targeting money to underserved communities, in particular communities of color and immigrant communities and rural parts of the state that are currently underserved by the existing media ecosystem,” Rispoli said. Among other areas of interest were “training programs so community members can learn to do documentary filmmaking, podcasting, training in news gathering, opening data portals for greater access to government data, a right-to-know institute, [and] investigative funds where newsrooms could request grants for investigative journalism or to collaborate on investigative projects.”

Greenwald is hopeful the consortium can create a template that can spark similar efforts in other states, inspired by, but not necessarily modeled on, New Jersey's approach.

“A number of states have reached out, expressing interest in it,” he said. “I do think as this develops, it creates a template for a model for other states to follow.”

In Massachusetts, Representative Lori Ehrlich (D) is sponsoring a bill to establish a commission of 17 industry members, lawmakers and academics to produce a report on the state of local journalism, including models of sustainability for private, public and nonprofit institutions. Among its charges, the commission would examine “news deserts” of underserved populations and the effect of social media on journalism.

The bill, she said, hit a snag in the committee process, but both the committee chairman and the speaker of the House are committed to getting it passed.

“Even in the short time since I filed the bill [in January 2019], so much has changed in journalism and none of it for the better,” she said.

While the newspapers in her district northeast of Boston are hanging on, “that’s not true across the state where we have news deserts with no coverage and others with papers that have been eviscerated.

“Local news allows us to not only know what’s going on in government and in meetings we can’t possibly attend, but it tells us the story of who we are and who makes up our community,” Ehrlich said. “The loss of a newspaper is a tear in the fabric of our community. We lose a piece of what we’ve come to know as civil society. There’s something to be said about applying journalistic integrity to issues as they arise as an important moderating factor on our politics.”

A Loss of Important Coverage

Statehouse coverage by local media has been dwindling for years and the current pandemic is certain to add to the snowballing. Recent reports in The New York Times and from the Poynter Institute detail some of the newsroom cutbacks in the wake of the pandemic, much of it attributable to a drastic drop in advertising.

Scott Greenberger, executive editor of Stateline,  the daily news service of The Pew Charitable Trusts, oversees a news staff of 10, plus five freelancers, who produce detailed coverage of state issues and aggregate a daily “What We’re Reading” feed of top state stories from around the nation culled from newspapers, wire services and nonprofit news entities.

“We’re seeing more outlets, but in the traditional for-profit newspapers there’s less of the kind of policy-oriented coverage we’re interested in,” he said. “There are exceptions but it’s pretty obvious in checking those papers every day that they don’t have as many people at the statehouse and therefore you don’t see as many stories.

“A lot of these nonprofit entities are doing a terrific job,” he added. “The Texas Tribune comes to mind. There is a recognition out there that statehouse coverage is incredibly important and there isn’t enough of it right now. This crisis has highlighted the importance of state and local government as opposed to the stuff the national papers cover in Washington.”

Craig Sandler remembers the scene in the press gallery at the Massachusetts statehouse when he was a young reporter for State House News Service, fresh out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1988.

“It was hard, sometimes impossible, to get a seat in there and now it’s a sea of empty desks,” he said. Sandler now owns the subscription-based wire service, which was established in 1894 and whose staff of seven produces robust gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Massachusetts General Court as part of its local and state government reporting.

Sandler owns a similar statewide site, News Service of Florida, in Tallahassee. Both sites’ content is behind a paywall, which Sandler believes is essential for long-term viability and which, he said, can operate in communities of virtually any size. “You could hire three or four people to cover a single community and charge people what they pay for a cup of Starbucks a week.”

The shrinking of legislative coverage is “appalling and heartbreaking,” he said. “It’s terrible to see friends not doing what they are trained to do.”

The Future of News?

It was a fateful Friday afternoon when Bobby Harrison’s phone rang. He had been a one-person  Capitol bureau for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1995, and by then he was the only reporter on the Capitol beat year-round. His editor was calling and said a person from human resources was sitting in his office while he delivered the day’s news. Harrison’s job had been eliminated.

Two months later, Harrison became senior Capitol reporter for Mississippi Today, whose staff of 18 makes it one of the biggest newsrooms in the state, covering state government, health, education, justice, culture and sports. Its funding comes from private contributions, corporations and foundations. The coverage is free to readers and any media outlet that wants to use it.

Mississippi Today is among the 215 nonprofit news sites, some of them staffed with reporters, editors and photographers who previously worked at legacy publications, tracked by the Institute for Nonprofit News.

“State government has much more impact on a lot of important issues than does the federal government,” said Harrison, who is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association. “The lack of coverage is disheartening, bad for democracy and not good for the citizens of the state.”

Mark Wolf is the editor of the NCSL Blog.

Coronavirus: A Timeline

  • Dec. 31, 2019

     

    China confirms that its health officials have been treating dozens of patients with a pneumonia-like illness.

  • Jan. 7, 2020

     

    The illness is identified as a new coronavirus. China reports its first virus-related death on the 11th.

  • Jan. 21

     

    Officials in Washington state confirm the first case of the virus on U.S. soil—a man in his 30s

  • Jan. 29

     

    The White House announces the formation of a task force to monitor the spread of the virus.

  • Jan. 30

     

    World Health Organization declares the outbreak to be a “public health emergency of international concern.”

  • Jan. 31

     

    The U.S. suspends entry into the country of foreign nationals who have recently traveled to China.

  • Feb. 11

     

    WHO officially names the disease caused by the new virus: COVID-19, for coronavirus disease 2019.

  • Feb. 24

     

    U.S. stock market plummets, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average experiencing its worst day in two years.

  • Feb. 29

     

    First recorded virus-related death in the U.S.; reports will later find a death Feb. 6 may have been the first.

  • March 6

     

    Trump signs $8.3 billion emergency spending package. The SXSW conference and music festivals are canceled.

  • March 11

     

    WHO says outbreak is a “pandemic.” NBA suspends all games after a player tests positive for COVID-19.

  • March 13

     

    White House declares national emergency. States begin announcing plans to close schools.

  • March 16

    Wall Street plunges again. Coronavirus task force issues distancing guidelines to remain in effect for 15 days.

  • March 17

    Maryland and Ohio postpone primary elections; Arizona, Florida and Illinois proceed with theirs.

  • March 18

    Trump signs Families First Coronavirus Response Act, providing, among other things, free COVID-19 testing.

  • March 19

    California, the most populous state, is the first to issue a statewide, mandatory stay-at-home order.

  • March 24

    Japanese officials announce that the 2020 Olympics are postponed. They are later scheduled for July 2021.

  • March 25

    Congress passes first of three stimulus packages. NCSL helps to secure $150 billion in state assistance.

  • March 27

    Trump signs $2 trillion stimulus bill. Two days later, administration extends distancing guidelines to April 30.

  • April 15

    At least 23 legislatures have postponed their legislative sessions. Protests erupt over stay-at-home orders.

  • April 20

    The Navajo Nation reports the nation’s third-highest infection rate behind New York and New Jersey.

  • April 24

    Demonstrators, some armed, gather at the Wisconsin Capitol to protest stay-at-home restrictions.

  • April 30

    30 million U.S. workers, or about 18% of the workforce, have lost their jobs, the Labor Department reports.

  • May 5

    About half the states have begun easing stay-at-home restrictions and reopening their economies.