Saturday, April 18, 2020

More Adventures in Shutdown Shopping

This past week I made my first foray to Costco since the earliest days of the pandemic shutdown here in Washington.  Even in normal times I try to minimize my trips to Costco since I do not like crowds.  But these days I am pretty much resigned to waiting in line to get into food stores so I figured I'd just bite the bullet and hope for the best.  I passed on the early open hours for seniors and showed up maybe a half hour after the regular all-comers opening at 10.

The line stretched about halfway down the side of the building.  It definitely looked shorter than the line I encountered on my last visit.   About two-thirds of the people in line, myself included, wore masks.  We were all naturally spaced out (social distance-wise, that is) by our shopping carts as we steadily made our way to the entrance.  At that point I discovered that the line followed a snaking path around barriers created with empty pallets where we proceeded in a stop and go manner as employees allowed customers to enter in small groups.  In all it probably too 15 to 20 minutes to gain entrance.

Inside the store, the experience was quite different from the usual.  Instead of  crowded aisles, the store felt relatively empty with plenty of space to keep my distance from others.  I did not have to weave my way around gaggles of shoppers.  I wasn't looking for any high-demand items and found the few things I wanted quickly.  Checkout was fast.  My total time in-store was probably about the same or less than my time in line.  Not as simple as shopping at Costco used to be but in the scheme of things, reasonably tolerable.

Two days later I went to Trader Joe's during the 8-9 am senior hour.  The line was shorter than earlier visits but it still took about 5 minutes to get into the store.  Like Costco, TJ limits the number of people allowed in at one time so the aisles were not crowded.  TJ is a much smaller store so space was a bit tighter than at Costco so I was closer to fellow shoppers there.  But I was in and out fairly fast and wore a mask so my exposure was relatively limited.

Watching the evolution of retail social distancing and infection control strategies has been interesting.  All of the places I regularly shop for groceries initiated control procedures immediately following the governor's order in early March and have fine-tuned them in the weeks since.  Yeah, it's inconvenient but infectious disease experts advise that we really do need to keep away from each other.  I don't think they are making that recommendation as a joke or part of some obscure conspiracy (although watching protesters gathering at state capitols to protest shutdown requirements suggests that plenty of conspiracy theories are out there) so I appreciate that the grocery stores I frequent are doing a good job of keeping food available and us apart while we procure those needed supplies. 

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Friday, April 17, 2020

Profile in Leadership

So Donald Trump finally recognized that he does not, in fact, have "absolute" authority (or anything like it) to reopen the American economy and is leaving that decision up to the governors of the various states.  Good on him for letting that reality seep into his brain.  The governors--Democrats and Republicans--have performed reasonably well in managing the Covid-19 crisis in their states iin the absence of consistent, fact-based guidance from the federal government. The emergence of regional efforts to figure out when will be the appropriate time to ease up on on the restrictions needed to control the virus offers some hope that the states will be able to figure out how best to balance public health with economic health.  The Trump administration even established guidelines for determining how to measure that balance.

All well and good but a couple key items are missing.  One is leadership.  If Donald Trump is telling governors that the decision is up to them, it would be very helpful if he would support them in their decision-making.  But he is not providing that support.  In fact, he is encouraging his base in resisting the governors' decisions.  So on the one hand Trump is recognizing the key role the states play in dealing with this crisis while on the other hand he is making it increasingly difficult for governors to implement policies regarded as essential for controlling the virus.  Two-faced "leadership".  Very similar to his "fine people on both sides" characterization of the Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.

The second missing item is testing to determine identify and isolate individuals who are positive for Covid-19.  Federal officials are still getting requests from private laboratories for help obtaining the necessary reagents to conduct tests and the American Hospital Association has raised concerns with the administration about a lack of testing supplies. There also is no single administration official working on testing.  Without a strong testing protocol states are flying blind in making  crucial decisions.  If Covid 19 was a shooting war of comparable magniture, the federal government would damn well make sure American industry churned out the bullets, guns and other needed materials.  But in this "war" with no visible enemy, the Trump administration won't exercise the authority it does have to compel production of the tests at a scale needed to inform effective decision-making.

Continuing with the war analogy, its as if each major division operates on its own without any coordinated leadership, with no supreme commander to oversee all theaters of operation.  Generals don't actually engage in combat but good ones make it possible for the grunts who do fight to do so effectively and with the weapons they need.

Leadership does make a difference.  America could use a leader right now.  Instead we have Donald Trump.


Monday, April 13, 2020

Studies in Public Administration, Covid-19 Edition

Sunday's Washington Post had a couple of articles about the governmental response to the coronavirus pandemic that illustrate strengths and weaknesses of American government.  As a government major in college and public administration in graduate school, I was exposed to the basic canon of separate but interrelated roles of the various levels of government in the US.  At least one of my texts discussed "layer cake" and "marble cake" models of federalism with the latter offered as the more realistic model in the America of the late 60s and early 70s.  My four decades working in the public sector pretty much confirmed that interrelationship; many programs typically involved some mixture of federal and state law and/or policy.

Despite the interrelationships some distinct activities define federal and state roles.  Maybe the most distinct is the scope of activity.  The feds operate on a national and international level.  That's why the story of the Trump administration bungling the coronavirus crisis is a classic case of bureaucratic failure.  Not only is the pandemic a crisis of national proportions but it also requires a level of expertise that can only be effectively marshalled in a national effort.  No state government or private organization can match the federal government in meeting the demand for accurate information, research and equipment needed to effectively manage such a major threat.  Read the story and it quickly becomes evident that after three months and over 20,000 deaths the Trump administration has no clear plan for ending the caronavirus crisis.  

On the other hand, states are rising to the occasion to the extent they can given their limited geographic scope.  Here in Washington Governor Inslee has been very aggressive in ordering shutdowns and self-isolation.  Ohio Governor Mike Dewine is another chief executive who acted quickly.  Neither state can claim victory but the trends in both states are beginning to offer some hope.  Back in school we heard that states were  "laboratories of democracy" (the texts did not mention it but many states have  been and still are "laboratories of anti-democracy) where ideas can be developed, tested and possibly serve as models for other states and even the federal government.  Although the fierce competition among the states for equipment, protective gear and other needed resources is not quite what the theory had in mind, it does demonstrate the deep reserve of competence and initiative within state governments that can provide a backstop to a feckless federal government in a time of national emergency.

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