UPDATED: West Coast governors pledge to work together on lifting stay-home orders

The pact says science and supply will be the driving factors in opening the west coast economy

UPDATE 4/14/20: This story has been slightly revised and updated to reflect new comments from the governors, making it less clear that this would be a simultaneous lifting of stay-home orders, and more of an orchestrated attempt to define metrics on when stay-home orders should be removed.

The governors of Washington, Oregon and California have announced a pact, agreeing that a lifting of stay-at-home orders will happen in concert.

A sign along I-5 in Vancouver urges motorists to stay home. Washington’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order was extended through May 4. Photo by Mike Schultz
A sign along I-5 in Vancouver urges motorists to stay home. Washington’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order was extended through May 4. Photo by Mike Schultz

“We are announcing that California, Oregon and Washington have agreed to work together on a shared approach for reopening our economies — one that identifies clear indicators for communities to restart public life and business,” the three said in a statement. “While each state is building a state-specific plan, our states have agreed to the following principles as we build out a West Coast framework,” to include, “adequate hospital surge capacity and supplies of personal protective equipment.”

As for when that might happen remains unclear. Washington state is currently under a Stay Home, Stay Healthy order issued March 23, and extended through May 4. California’s shelter-in-place order came four days before Oregon and Washington.

Initially, it appeared the governors were looking to lift stay-home orders on the same day, but that has since been cast into some doubt.

Charles Boyle, a spokesperson for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s office, told Willamette Week that “reopening Oregon is not a process that will happen overnight or statewide all at once.”

Instead, Boyle says, the goal of the western states pact will be to provide “metrics” for guiding decisions on when to open communities.

“We will only reopen Oregon if the data shows we can do so without jeopardizing public health,” said Boyle.

What that looks like remains unclear. Brown has said previously that she would want at least ten days without any new deaths, along with more testing capacity, systems to trace any new outbreaks, and better supplies of protective equipment.

“Any successful lifting of interventions must include a robust system for testing, tracking and isolating,” tweeted Washington Gov. Jay Inslee in announcing the pact. “The states will work together to share best practices and coordinate a framework to get it done.”

No timeline for that framework was announced, but the joint statement noted that “health outcomes and science — not politics — will guide these decisions.”

“This effort will be guided by data,” the governors wrote. “We need to see a decline in the rate of spread of the virus before large-scale reopening, and we will be working in coordination to identify the best metrics to guide this.”

The release noted that public health experts along the three western states would be focused on four key goals in the coming weeks.

  • Protecting vulnerable populations at risk for severe disease if infected. This includes a concerted effort to prevent and fight outbreaks in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
  • Ensuring an ability to care for those who may become sick with COVID-19 and other conditions. This will require adequate hospital surge capacity and supplies of personal protective equipment.
  • Mitigating the non-direct COVID-19 health impacts, particularly on disadvantaged communities.
  • Protecting the general public by ensuring any successful lifting of interventions includes the development of a system for testing, tracking and isolating. The states will work together to share best practices.

“There is no roadmap to address this unprecedented crisis,” noted Brown in a comment on Twitter. “But there’s power in working together with our neighbors on the West Coast as we plan to reopen our economies — and it’s smart to coordinate our metrics, best practices, and processes. This disease knows no borders.”

The White House is expected to announce its own Council to Re-Open America sometime this week, setting up a potential showdown with states over who has the authority to order businesses to get back to work.

“I want to get it open as soon as possible,” President Donald Trump said during a press conference on Friday. “The facts are going to determine what I do. But we do want to get the country open.”

Trump has declined to issue a nationwide stay-at-home order, saying it was up to the governors of each state to determine what the best course of action was. Instead, the federal government issued a series of guidelines called “stop the spread,” which are currently set to expire on April 30.

The president has called a decision about when to reopen the economy “the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make,” but has said the pressure is mounting to restart the nation’s economic engine amid record-shattering unemployment, a struggling stock market, and fears of a deepening recession.

Any attempt by the federal government to order states to lift stay-at-home orders could be met with constitutional backlash. 

The president tweeted today that any reporting that the federal government lacks the authority to compel states to open back up is “fake news.”

“It is the decision of the President, and for many good reasons,” the president tweeted. “With that being said, the Administration and I are working closely with the Governors, and this will continue. A decision by me, in conjunction with the Governors and input from others, will be made shortly!”

The president had previously expressed an interest in seeing some businesses reopen by Easter, but backed off of that after seeing data presented by healthcare officials working on the COVID-19 taskforce. He later extended the guidelines through April 30.

Trump has previously said he envisions a system in which some parts of the country where outbreaks have been limited in severity could head back to work, while hard hit places take a little longer to reopen.

“We can do both,” he said during a press conference in early April, referring to fighting the virus and getting the economy moving again.

On the other side of the coin, billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates called plans to open states in the near future “very irresponsible,” and said he believes the shutdown needs to go at least “ten more weeks” in order to be truly effective.

“There really is no middle ground, and it’s very tough to say to people, ‘Hey, keep going to restaurants, go buy new houses, ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner,’” Gates told TED Tuesday late last month. “It’s very irresponsible for somebody to suggest that we can have the best of both worlds.”