“Laboratories of democracy” reopen economies at different paces, with different rules. And with no little controversy.

Federalism has always been complicated. Several years ago, William Pound, then head of the National Conference of State Legislatures, wrote

The division of authority between the states and federal government is a constantly evolving system of dynamic tension…In drafting the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified by state conventions, the framers anticipated that states would be the principal policymakers in a system that granted limited power to the federal government.

He acknowledged challenges to the system in the last recession. 

The system again faces tests, as what Justice Louis Brandeis called the “laboratories of democracy” – a cliched and misunderstood metaphor, we gamely admit, and one that sounds just a bit strange during a pandemic – approach reopening their economies on different schedules and with different rules. Brandeis wrote,

“It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system,” Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote in 1932, “that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

That notion of no risk to the rest of the country is at the heart of the current controversy. The Wall Street Journal reports on the different approaches,

U.S. governors are pursuing different routes to restart local economies hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with several Southern leaders moving to reopen businesses while others voice concern about taking such steps without more robust testing capacity.

In Georgia, gyms, bowling alleys, barbers and other nonessential businesses were preparing to open as early as Friday, even as some mayors pushed back against the governor’s new order. Some retailers in South Carolina were already open, and affected businesses in most Tennessee counties will be able to open their doors on May 1.

Governors in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi were looking to task forces to guide their next steps. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said any eventual reopening of his state would likely vary by region, as some are more hard-hit than others. New York and states including California, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts already extended stay-at-home orders this month. Many are also working to expand testing and contact-tracing teams.

The Associated Press reports on regional coordination, or that lack thereof.

Governors in 17 states have committed to regional coordination to reopen their economies during the coronavirus outbreak — but none are in the South, where leaders are going it alone, just as they did in imposing restrictions…

The lack of regional coordination also raises concerns that a loosening in one state — especially with insufficient testing — could lead to a spike in cases in another. But agreement would be difficult in a region with such disparate approaches.

The strategy stands in stark contrast to coordination elsewhere. California, Oregon and Washington have agreed to synchronize how they will begin lifting their shelter-in-place restrictions.

Federalism faces an additional test, when state actions contravene the expressed intent of local officials, as in Georgia where some mayors challenge the governor’s decision to open up for business.

Washington is taken a measured approach to reopening. The Seattle Times reports,

Gov. Jay Inslee Tuesday evening announced a road map for reopening Washington’s economy that could soon allow the return of some elective surgeries, outdoor recreation and certain construction projects.

In a 5 p.m. televised public address, Inslee didn’t say when the stay-at-home order — scheduled to lift at the end of the day on May 4 — might start to be rolled back. The plan would only move forward, he said, once cases of the new coronavirus have fallen enough that the state is able to manage future outbreaks.

But Inslee said that data on cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, was beginning to look favorable.

If that continues, Inslee said, elective surgeries could begin again soon, as well as some outdoor recreation. Meanwhile, the governor’s office has agreed upon a plan with the construction industry and labor unions, “allowing limited return to construction with safety measures in place,” he said.

The article notes,

The governor faces increasing restlessness over the stay-at-home order first announced on March 23, as well as concern over its impact on jobs and the economy amid soaring unemployment claims.

We’ll probably be seeing much more on the experiments are working out in the various states. Challenging times.