WASHINGTON (AP) – Laura Herd says she sleeps better because her state's governor, Michigan Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, imposed one of the nation's strictest stay-at-home orders to combat the coronavirus pandemic. President Donald Trump's actions are another story.
“His goal is to get the economy back up so he stands a chance in November," said Herd, 36, of Traverse City, Michigan, who works for an environmental news service. "But he’s not willing to listen to the experts about what that really means.”
Herd's skepticism about Trump's desire to push the country back toward normal isn't uncommon, especially among her fellow Democrats and many independents. That's prompting concern by public health professionals that voters will use a partisan lens to decide which policymakers they heed as communities consider easing restrictions that have smothered normal life – a potentially dangerous dynamic.
“I’m not sure if it's partisan or ideological, but there’s clearly a divide,” said Mike Leavitt, a Republican former Utah governor and secretary of health under President George W. Bush. “I think it will clearly be a filter through which people read” officials' guidance.
Trump has wanted states to relax restrictions by May 1 and has inaccurately claimed “total" authority to decree how that happens. He retreated Thursday as the White House issued vague guidelines for gradually returning to normal activities that left final decisions to the states.
Many governors, mostly Democrats, have long made clear they'll move at their own pace to ease restrictions on families, business and travel. Should differences between Trump and state and local officials persist and people base their actions on their political leanings, that would dangerously complicate the pathway to recovery, officials say.
“You’ll get more people sick and run the risk of more people dying, because you’ll have such confusion because people won’t know what to do,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, which represents professionals and organizations in the field. “They’ll selectively pick the advice that aligns with their ideology.”
AP interviews around the country found voters navigating the pandemic on their own and dubious about advice from the other party’s leaders. Many expressed confidence in top public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, fixtures at Trump's press briefings.
Fauci is the government’s top infectious disease expert and Birx is the White House coronavirus task force coordinator.
Ted Hill of Asheville, N.C., a Republican and retired accountant, praised Trump and said local officials’ restrictions have gone too far.
“Good Lord, if you go into a supermarket without a mask, they look at you like you have two heads,” he said. Hill said Trump “surrounds himself with good people" and gets good results.
Niki Waldron of Vallejo, Calif., said she’s glad Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed an early stay-at-home order. But she worries about friends and family living in Trump-friendly areas and thinks advisers like Fauci and Birx must guard against angering Trump.
“I don’t feel like the rest of our federal government is necessarily basing their judgments on sound science,” Waldron said.
David Barr, 53, who said he usually votes Republican, said Whitmer's restrictions were hurting businesses like golf courses that he said could operate safely.
“We don’t need a month to start reopening the economy," said Barr, who works for a group of radio stations in northern Michigan. He said Whitmer's “credibility is questionable."
Underscoring that people's political views are already guiding opinions on state-imposed restrictions, MAGA hat-wearing Trump supporters, gun rights advocates and backers of right-wing causes have demonstrated outside governors' mansions and state Capitols in several states.
At the largest, thousands rallied Wednesday in Michigan's capital of Lansing after Whitmer extended her state's stay-at-home order through April.
With November's presidential and congressional elections on the horizon, the question of whose advice voters follow – and whether it proves wise or disastrous – carries major political stakes.
Trump’s reelection prospects could be badly damaged if today's Depression-era levels of unemployment and failed businesses don’t improve. He invited numerous congressional Republicans and Democrats to join a White House task force on rebooting the country, which he could use to argue he is relying on bipartisan advice.
Trump fired out three tweets Friday urging his followers to “LIBERATE” Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia, each with Democratic governors who have imposed social distancing orders. The tweets seemed aimed at encouraging conservatives in those states opposing restrictions, a striking action by a president.
A fresh push by Trump to loosen restrictions would be especially potent in GOP-leaning states, where “there’ll be a lot of pressure on those states’ politicians to lighten up,” said Joseph Antos, a health policy expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Fact-checkers have documented thousands of falsehoods by Trump since he became president. Since the pandemic began, polls have underscored how poorly he’s trusted to handle the disease and how views of his competency are divided along party lines.
In a late March survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 44 percent overall approved of Trump’s handling of the outbreak. Those high marks came from around 8-in-10 Republicans, but less than 2-in-10 Democrats and about 4-in-10 independents.
Federal public health authorities and state and local officials are more trusted than Trump for handling the outbreak, polls show.
“If there’s a big fight with the governors versus Trump, it would be really bad for public health,” said Drew Altman, president of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. “The public won’t know what to believe.”
Looking to maximize public faith as the economy reopens, business groups have urged the White House to make clear that its guidelines are endorsed by trusted authorities, not just Trump.
“People will be more comfortable if they see the advice is from public health officials," said Neil Bradley, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's chief policy officer.
“People will have to figure out who they trust,” said Lanhee Chen, a fellow who studies health care at the conservative Hoover Institute.