Political Animal

The GOP Governors Using Coronavirus to Quash Abortion Rights

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted every facet of American life. It poses an existential threat to the hospitality, restaurant, and retail industries. It has put millions of people out of work. And if a number of Republican officials across the country have their way, something else might go out of business too: access to surgical abortions in red states.

In recent weeks, state and local officials across the country have pushed to limit non-essential medical procedures in the wake of COVID-19. That’s been necessary to save space for patients infected by the virus, as hospitals prepare for a surge of new cases, and to ensure that life-saving equipment, already in short supply, can be used on those who need it most.

But in a handful of GOP-controlled states, there has been a targeted push to classify abortions as “non-essential,” thereby imposing new restrictions on the procedure. In some cases, those directives have come from executive orders, leaving abortion clinics to fear whether performing the operation will put them in legal jeopardy.

Medical officials, however, argue that abortions are time-sensitive and thus an essential procedure. Skye Perryman, the general counsel for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said Monday that “using the COVID-19 pandemic to push political agendas is unconscionable, and it is harmful to the health of patients, and women.” In other words, anti-choice Republicans are taking advantage of a global pandemic to suppress women’s reproductive rights.

It’s a form of coronavirus opportunism—and it’s been working. Since these states’ directives were announced, women across the country have been blocked from getting abortions. Clinic operators had to cancel hundreds of appointments since bans took effect last week, according to clinic representatives. Nancy Northup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said that many Texas patients seeking care had traveled to Oklahoma. But then, Oklahoma enacted its own mortarium. Now, those women don’t know where to turn, and the next closest state with safe access to an abortion could be hundreds of miles away.

Some people might have seen this coming. “It’s not surprising that the states that are now using the COVID crisis to stop people from getting abortion care are the very same states that have a history of passing laws to ban abortions or using sham rationale to shut down clinics,” said Jennifer Dalven, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project.

Still, advocacy groups are gearing up for an extended legal challenge. On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, and the Center for Reproductive Rights filed lawsuits in Alabama, Ohio, Iowa, and Oklahoma, arguing that surgical abortion bans during a public health emergency are a violation of Roe v. Wade. The lawsuits demand an “emergency stay” on those orders, which would allow clinics to remain open and provide care to patients. A similar lawsuit was filed in Texas on March 26. In the meantime, however, millions of women are left to live in agonizing uncertainty.

In some states, legal challenges to these moves have led to early—if temporary—successes for advocates and clinics.

Litigation has worked in Ohio, where a March 17 health department order required the cancellation of non-essential surgical procedures. Following the order, the state’s deputy attorney general, Jonathan Fulkerson, sent letters to three abortion clinics instructing them to “immediately stop performing non-essential and elective surgical abortions.” On Monday, District Court Judge Michael Barrett sided with groups who challenged the ban and issued a two-week temporary restraining order, said Jessie Hill, a cooperating attorney with the Ohio chapter of the ACLU. Following an appeal by the state, a federal judge on Thursday upheld Barrett’s ruling, allowing abortions to continue to be performed in the state.

But litigation hasn’t worked out everywhere. In Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton instructed all medical facilities on March 23 to stop all “medically unnecessary surgeries or procedures” in response to the coronavirus outbreak and an executive order. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel granted a temporary restraining order Monday to consider the underlying legal issues. But then Yeakel’s order was struck down on Tuesday, when a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals allowed Texas Governor Greg Abbott to continue restricting abortion access through his COVID-19 executive order.

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt also announced an executive order that suspends elective medical procedures through April 7—including abortions, except when one can be proved necessary to prevent health risks to the patient. Stitt’s order, issued on March 24, is being challenged in court.

Perhaps no state has more of a recent history of trying to tamper with abortion rights than Alabama. Last year, the governor signed into law one of the most far-reaching restrictions on abortion rights in the nation. It included a ban on abortion procedures after eight weeks of pregnancy, but the legislation was temporarily blocked by the courts before it could be implemented.

Now, Alabama is using the coronavirus outbreak to further its original goal. The governor ordered a temporary shutdown of non-essential medical procedures on March 27, including abortions. District Court Judge Myron Thompson, however, suspended the state’s ban with a temporary restraining order until April 13.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds has tried to do the same thing. She signed an order on March 27 to halt all elective and non-emergency medical procedures—abortions included. Advocates and state officials reached an agreement on Wednesday, however, that women would be able to obtain “essential” abortions in the state, making the procedure available if a delay would pose a health risk to the patient. Otherwise, they have to wait until the ban is lifted on April 16. The ACLU subsequently withdrew its request for an emergency injunction.

Progressive activists in other red states are gearing up for similar bans. Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb issued an order on Monday to “cancel or postpone elective and non-urgent surgical or invasive procedures,” which was confirmed to include abortions. Governors in Kentucky and Mississippi have also said they believe abortion should be included on the list of banned “non-essential” medical procedures due to COVID-19.

Abortions are hard enough to get as it is. Conservative politicians in red states have sought for years to place undue burdens on women who seek them—and to challenge their legality in the judiciary. As different legal decisions are made in district or appellate courts throughout the nation, the issue may soon come before the Supreme Court.

Heather Shumaker, Senior Counsel for Reproductive Rights & Health at the National Women’s Law Center, said that COVID-19 just serves to compound the issues with abortion access, particularly as they impact lower-income individuals, as well as young people, people of color, and those in rural areas.

If anti-choice officials are successful, more and more women seeking abortions will be left unsure of their rights. Some will flat out be denied them.

“The really frustrating thing about these kinds of unconstitutional actions is that they can have such a chilling effect on patients seeking needed health care that they can’t delay,” said Hill, the Ohio attorney. “You can’t delay an abortion until the end of this pandemic.”

The South Doesn’t Want to Self-Isolate

As you can see from the New York Times’ examination of travel patterns in the United States, there has been a wide and largely regional disparity across the country in terms of who was quick to self-isolate and who wasn’t. Most of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the Upper Midwest, and the West Coast had issued stay-at-home orders by March 27. Other states that were proactive include New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, and Louisiana. The urban areas in Texas tried to be proactive even as their state government opposed them. The South, as a whole, did not instruct people to stay at home and the result is that their travel patterns remained normal, or close to normal.

This is going to matter later.

The inconsistencies in policies—and in when they are imposed—may create new problems, even for places that set limits weeks ago.

“Let’s assume that we flatten the curve, that we push transmission down in the Bay Area and we walk away with 1 percent immunity,” said Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco. “Then, people visit from regions that have not sheltered in place, and we have another run of cases. This is going to happen.”

There’s a tradeoff to self-quarantining. People don’t get infected with COVID-19, so people don’t survive the infection and get immunity. The isolated communities are nearly as vulnerable to a new outbreak as they were before all this began. It’s worth doing anyway for a variety of reasons, including that it limits how many people are flooding our unprepared and undersupplied hospitals, and that it buys time for researchers to find effective treatments and develop a vaccine.  Hopefully, getting COVID-19 in the fall or winter will be more survivable than getting it now.

But areas that were slow or still refuse to isolate and limit travel have spiked their own infection rates and spread the virus far and wide. They’ll have a higher level of immunity but that’s not going to be helpful to the rest of the country.

Looking at the charts, there seems to be more going on than just whether or not a given state government asked people to shelter in place. Outside of the South, people seem to have complied with this even in the absence of official guidance. Meanwhile, with the exception of parts of Louisiana and South Florida, the states of the former Confederacy all look the same regardless of what their governors set as policy. Something cultural explains why Southerners didn’t heed the advice they were hearing in the media, and it’s not just support for Trump. He has plenty of support in the prairies states and Mountain West, and they did significantly reduce their travel. The pattern is visible even in a blue state like Virginia and a purple one like North Carolina, both of which have Democratic governors.

Whether religiosity explains it, or a probably related skepticism toward scientific expert advice, or maybe something to do with their car culture, I don’t know. But their slowness to respond to this outbreak has undermined the effectiveness of the efforts of the areas that did respond. And, because of the nature of this disease, we’re all going to be paying for that for the foreseeable future.

How Democrats Addressed the Massive Unemployment Crisis

The news about unemployment during the coronavirus crisis continues to be staggering. Over the last week, an additional 6.6 million people filed for unemployment insurance, bringing the total for just the last two weeks to over 10 million. That has already exceeded the 8.7 million that lost their jobs during the Great Recession.

But for those looking for a silver lining amidst all of the bad news, those numbers reflect the fact that Americans are heeding the message about social distancing.

From what we’re seeing in Washington and California, it’s working to flatten the curve.

Mandatory social distancing works. The earlier the better, preliminary data from two weeks of stay-at-home orders in California and Washington show.

Those states were the first to report community cases of covid-19 and also the first in the nation to mandate residents stay at home to keep physically apart. Analyses from academics and federal and local officials indicate those moves bought those communities precious time—and also may have “flattened the curve” of infections for the long haul.

With all of that, the question remains about how American workers can survive the overwhelming loss of jobs while everyone stays home. That is where Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s plan for “unemployment insurance (UI) on steroids” comes in. As most of us have already heard, the cornerstone of that plan is to increase weekly benefits by $600. But the part that hasn’t gotten as much notice is that workers don’t have to be laid off in order to claim the benefit.

Many businesses are choosing to furlough their employees during this crisis, which amounts to an unpaid leave of absence. Not only do furloughed workers retain their employee benefits, but Schumer’s UI on steroids also extends payments to them. He discussed that during his remarks on the Senate floor as the stimulus bill was being finalized.

As Schumer explains, businesses that furlough their employees can quickly mobilize once the coronavirus crisis is over. That will be a plus for both employees and their employers.

As William Winecoff explained, all of that is in addition to the provision in the stimulus bill to shore up small businesses.

It’s a loan program. But loans are fully forgiven if 75% or more of them go towards payrolls. Including benefits. And (rapid) rehires. So it should function like a grant program. The reason why it is structured as a loan program is because it can be administered through FDIC banks, credit unions, etc.

If this works well, you can walk into your local bank and get cash fast. Maybe on the spot? But the banks can’t profit; no fees allowed. Also no collateral, no personal guarantees required….Payroll support is for 8 weeks, which buys us a good amount of time. Also creates infrastructure if it needs to be expanded further.

Kevin Drum tallied up the trillion dollars in the stimulus bill that goes directly to supporting American workers.

A $1,200 check for just about everyone with a middle-class income or less. That’s almost $3,000 for a family of three.

A program that encourages small businesses to keep workers employed by funding their payroll costs.

For those workers who are laid off anyway, an expanded unemployment insurance program that replaces 100 percent or more of your normal income up to $50-60,000 (depending on what state you live in).

That is in addition to the money that was allocated to hospitals to treat coronavirus cases, along with funds to shore up state and local governments who are experiencing significant losses of tax revenue.

Those are the things Democrats fought to have included in the stimulus bill, along with transparency and oversight of the bailout funds for corporations. As they promised while negotiating this package, Democrats are already paving the way for “phase 4.”

“Our first bills were about addressing the emergency. The third bill was about mitigation. The fourth bill would be about recovery. Emergency, mitigation, recovery,” Pelosi said on a conference call. “I think our country is united in not only wanting to address our immediate needs—emergency, mitigation, and the assault on our lives and livelihoods—but also, how we recover in a very positive way.”

That’s what leadership looks like in a time of crisis.

I’m Wearing a Mask From Now On

As I was tossing and turning in my bed last night, I thought about calling in sick today. It’s not something I’ve done more than once or twice in this job. In general, writing makes me feel better, so there’s really almost no circumstance where I’d want to spend an entire day not writing. But this pandemic was starting to get to me. It’s not that I feel ill, although with all this stress and worry I can’t say I feel well either. It’s more that I’m finally confronting something that kind of asks me to just step back and observe without comment. A little voice is saying to be still and quiet for a moment. Maybe I need to find my bearings.

But I can’t do it. I can’t report in as sick when my sickness is so widely shared and yet isn’t truly incapacitating. The same things that are weighing on me like a black cloud are weighing on everyone else. For example, how do I safely procure food for my family when my wife is asthmatic and at high risk? I’ve made 3 a.m. trips to the local Wegman’s, but that’s not a healthy schedule for anyone. I’ve used the delivery services at Whole Foods, but their workers are striking over unsafe conditions and low pay. I’ve gone to convenience stores, but found it impossible to maintain a six-foot distance from the check-out person, let alone the other shoppers. What about my twenty-something step kids? They haven’t been rigorously isolating for 14 whole days, so under what circumstances should we get together?

My mother-in-law came up from Florida over two weeks ago, but I’ve only waved to her from a safe distance. She made the whole family some cloth masks. I’ve had mine in my coat pocket for at least 10 days now, but I haven’t used it. I very much appreciated her effort and thoughtfulness but didn’t think it would actually help since the virus is so small it can pass through cloth as easily as it passes through air. But now I realize that I’ve been making a mistake. The mask won’t protect me, but it could protect everyone around me.

You see, it’s very possible that I’ve been infected during my resupply forays and don’t even know it. If I cough into my mask, it will limit how far I spread the virus. This might even apply to the simple act of breathing.

As many as 25 percent of people infected with the new coronavirus may not show symptoms, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns—a startlingly high number that complicates efforts to predict the pandemic’s course and strategies to mitigate its spread.

In particular, the high level of symptom-free cases is leading the C.D.C. to consider broadening its guidelines on who should wear masks.

“This helps explain how rapidly this virus continues to spread across the country,” the director, Dr. Robert Redfield, told National Public Radio in an interview broadcast on Tuesday.

So, I have something to write about after all. I’m going to wear my mask from now on because I have no way of knowing if I have COVID-19 and I don’t want to put anyone at risk. I’ve taken as many precautions as I can, but who can say if the clerk at 7-Eleven had the virus or the woman at the grocery store who invaded my space to fix the glitchy self-checkout computer? They’re spending eight-hour shifts serving people, some of whom are almost definitely asymptomatic carriers. My township only has two confirmed cases right now, but the township where my Wegman’s is located has the highest rate of infection in the county. In fact, Wegman’s may be the reason for that.

These are now life and death decisions for me and my wife and possibly for anyone I encounter outside of my self-quarantine. Wearing my mask will make me feel self-conscious. But it’s the smart and moral play here. So, I’m going to do it.

This is another reason why we need widely available testing. Without it, even the smallest decisions can be paralyzing.