In Brief

Comparing Coronavirus Lockdowns: The Federal-Local Divide

The United States is one of the few leading economies to delegate responsibility for coronavirus restrictions to state and local governments.

The United States has suffered the world’s most widespread and deadly outbreak of the coronavirus. Its response has sparked questions over the merits of having states take the lead on implementing restrictions instead of the federal government. 

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Only a few Group of Twenty (G20) countries, including the United States, have rejected nationwide lockdowns and allowed local and state governments to implement their own restrictions. Many of these countries’ constitutions give states significant power to make decisions affecting citizens’ well-being, such as those regarding education and health issues.

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Most others have let the federal government decide whether to issue stay-at-home orders and restrict the movement of millions of people. For example, India, the world’s second-most-populous country, locked down for over a month. France required people leaving home to carry a government permission form. And Russia enforced a national “nonworking period,” during which all nonessential businesses were closed for weeks.

 

Even in countries without nationwide lockdowns, the federal government has often played a significant role. In many countries, it has led the economic response to the crisis while also recommending actions to states and coordinating among local officials, such as in Australia and Canada.

Other federal governments, however, have downplayed the threat of the virus altogether, contradicting messages coming from local officials. In Brazil, which is suffering Latin America’s worst outbreak, President Jair Bolsonaro denounced lockdowns implemented by mayors and governors. Indonesian President Joko Widodo faced criticism for hesitating to restrict people’s movement. In the United States, restrictions vary from state to state and city to city, leaving residents confused over what they can and cannot do. 

Who decides when to reopen?

The move by many countries to start lifting their lockdowns has further complicated response efforts. Instead of completely lifting nationwide lockdowns, some federal governments are letting local leaders decide what happens next. In Argentina, for example, President Alberto Fernandez eased nationwide restrictions in May and allowed mayors and governors to determine whether to reopen businesses and let people leave their homes if coronavirus cases in their jurisdictions remain low.

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A woman wearing a face guard passes a drink to a man wearing a face mask at a bar.
A pub in Bonn, Germany, reopens following weeks of closure due to coronavirus restrictions. Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

In the United States, the decision is ultimately up to the states, which have more authority over public health than the federal government, whose role is to provide guidance. But experts say it hasn’t been easy for governors to parse mixed messages from the Donald J. Trump administration. The White House has provided guidelines for when states should reopen. At the same time, the president has urged governors to relax their restrictions regardless of whether they’ve met the criteria. (Many still haven’t.) On top of that, local courts, such as the Wisconsin Supreme Court, have overturned states’ stay-at-home orders, deeming them unlawful.

Aarushi Jain contributed to this piece. 

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