Trump has megaphone, but states control virus shutdowns

WASHINGTON — (AP) — President Donald Trump has the biggest megaphone, but it's governors and local officials who will decide when to begin reopening their economies after shuttering them to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The Constitution largely gives states the authority to regulate their own affairs.

Trump has set Easter, April 12, as a goal for reopening the U.S. economy, though he also has said he will be guided by his public health experts. Unless Americans continue to dramatically limit social interaction by staying home from work and isolating themselves, the number of infections will overwhelm the health care system, many health experts have warned.

Some questions and answers about the legal authority for shutting and reopening the U.S. economy.

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Q. Does the president have the authority to override state and local orders?

A. No. Under our constitutional system, states have the power and responsibility for maintaining public order and safety. As we've seen since the outbreak began, decisions about limiting social interactions by ordering people to shelter in place, closing businesses and shutting schools are being made by governors and local officials. Those same officials will make the call about when to ease up, no matter the vehemence of Trump's exhortation to have businesses “opened up and just raring to go by Easter." Trump's comments “are just advisory," said John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation.

Gov. Larry Hogan, R-Md., has ordered all nonessential businesses and schools to close, and he said Thursday on Twitter that he does not see a quick end to the restrictions. “This battle is going to be much harder, take much longer, and be much worse than almost anyone comprehends. We have never faced anything like this ever before, and I continue to urge the people of our state to stay in place at home and stay safe," Hogan wrote.

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Q. But the president has set a 15-day period in which all Americans are being urged to drastically scale back their public activities. Doesn't that amount to a national order?

A. No. The guidelines are voluntary, and they underscore the limits on Trump's powers. He can use daily briefings and his Twitter account to try to shape public opinion, and he has not been reluctant to do so. “When Donald Trump selects a narrative and begins to advance it, especially through his Twitter account, it has a remarkable effect on those who trust him. The more the president speaks against more robust forms of social distancing (such as shelter-in-place rules), the more noncompliance we are likely to see on the ground level from citizens sympathetic to the president," Robert Chesney, a University of Texas law professor wrote on the Lawfare blog.

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Q. Still, Trump has invoked some federal laws to address the virus outbreak, hasn't he?

A. Yes, he has. The Stafford Act allows the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars in emergency assistance. The Defense Production Act allows the president to direct private companies to produce goods or acquire raw materials. Trump has yet to actually order companies to do anything, over the objection of some local officials who have a desperate need for ventilators, masks and other equipment. But Trump can only assert powers that Congress has specifically given him. "There are real limits on the president and the federal government when it comes to domestic affairs," Berkeley law professor John Yoo said on a recent Federalist Society conference call. At the same time, the federal government has the power, under laws aimed at preventing the spread of communicable diseases, to quarantine people when they arrive in the United States and travel between states.

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Q. Is it clear that state and local governments have authority to impose the severe restrictions we've seen?

A. Lawsuits already are challenging state actions on religious grounds and as seizures of property for which the government must pay compensation. But for more than 100 years, the Supreme Court has upheld states' robust use of their authority, even when it restricts people's freedoms. In 1905, the court rejected a Massachusetts pastor's complaint that he should not be forced to get a smallpox vaccine or pay a fine, Malcolm noted.

Two runners get in their last legs of exercise before a Chicago police officer notifies them that the trails along Lake Michigan are closed in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19 infections, Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Chicago. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Two runners get in their last legs of exercise before a Chicago police officer notifies them that the trails along Lake Michigan are closed in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19 infections, Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Chicago. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) (Charles Rex Arbogast)
Signs that assist with social distancing are placed where shoppers wait in line at a grocery store in Austin, Texas, Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Austin is under Stay at Home orders to help battle the effects of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Signs that assist with social distancing are placed where shoppers wait in line at a grocery store in Austin, Texas, Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Austin is under Stay at Home orders to help battle the effects of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) (Eric Gay)
With the U.S. Capitol building in the background, motorists drive on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in Washington. Officials have urged Washington residents to stay home to contain the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
With the U.S. Capitol building in the background, motorists drive on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in Washington. Officials have urged Washington residents to stay home to contain the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Traffic is light on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles as stay-at-home orders due to coronavirus continue in the city, Wednesday, March 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Traffic is light on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles as stay-at-home orders due to coronavirus continue in the city, Wednesday, March 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello) (Chris Pizzello)
A fisherman observes social distancing while wearing a face mask as he prepares to cast his line Wednesday afternoon, March 25, 2020, at the Ross Barnett Reservoir spillway, near Brandon, Miss. Residents are taking advantage of warm weather in the outdoors and maintain social distancing as they fish. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
A fisherman observes social distancing while wearing a face mask as he prepares to cast his line Wednesday afternoon, March 25, 2020, at the Ross Barnett Reservoir spillway, near Brandon, Miss. Residents are taking advantage of warm weather in the outdoors and maintain social distancing as they fish. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) (Rogelio V. Solis)
A man has his temperature taken at a control point on a covered footbridge to be screened for symptoms before entering the Dell Deton Medical Center at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Austin is under Stay-at-Home orders to help battle the effects of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
A man has his temperature taken at a control point on a covered footbridge to be screened for symptoms before entering the Dell Deton Medical Center at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Austin is under Stay-at-Home orders to help battle the effects of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) (Eric Gay)
Two snowmen, six feet apart for social distancing, stand in the front yard of the Mack home in Kalamazoo, Michigan on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Five-year-old twin boys Ricky and Charlie made the snowmen from a small amount of snow that fell overnight on Sunday. (Kendall Warner/Kalamazoo Gazette via AP)
Two snowmen, six feet apart for social distancing, stand in the front yard of the Mack home in Kalamazoo, Michigan on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Five-year-old twin boys Ricky and Charlie made the snowmen from a small amount of snow that fell overnight on Sunday. (Kendall Warner/Kalamazoo Gazette via AP) (Kendall Warner)
A woman walks along Jean Klock Park in Benton Harbor, Mich., Wednesday, March 25, 2020. A "Stay Home, Stay Safe" Executive Order is currently in effect in Michigan forcing all non-critical businesses and operations to temporarily remain closed and for residents to stay at home and six feet away from others. (Don Campbell/The Herald-Palladium via AP)
A woman walks along Jean Klock Park in Benton Harbor, Mich., Wednesday, March 25, 2020. A "Stay Home, Stay Safe" Executive Order is currently in effect in Michigan forcing all non-critical businesses and operations to temporarily remain closed and for residents to stay at home and six feet away from others. (Don Campbell/The Herald-Palladium via AP) (Don Campbell)
President Donald Trump takes questions during a briefing about the coronavirus in the James Brady Briefing Room, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Donald Trump takes questions during a briefing about the coronavirus in the James Brady Briefing Room, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (Alex Brandon)