Coronavirus response highlights deepening partisan divide

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Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti listens as California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks in front of the hospital ship US Naval Ship Mercy that arrived into the Port of Los Angeles on Friday, March 27, 2020, to provide relief for Southland hospitals overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic. Admiral John Gumbleton, U.S. Navy stands behind Mayor Garcetti. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool)

NEW YORK – In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti has instituted a shutdown on a city of nearly 4 million people and threatened uncooperative business owners with power shutoffs and arrest.

In Mississippi, home to nearly 3 million people, Gov. Tate Reeves has allowed most businesses to stay open — even restaurants, so long as they serve no more than 10 people at a time.

The divergent approaches are evidence that not even a global pandemic can bridge the gaping political divisions of the Trump era. The fierce tribalism that has characterized debates over immigration, taxes and health care is now coloring policy-making during a coronavirus outbreak that threatens countless lives and local economies across nation.

There are exceptions, but Republican leaders have been far more likely to resist the most aggressive social distancing measures, emboldened by President Donald Trump's initial rosy outlook and a smaller early caseload in their more rural communities across middle America. But in the more crowded population centers on the East and West coasts where the disease first appeared, the Democrats in charge have been more willing to embrace strict steps such as curfews, sweeping business closures and law enforcement assistance.

“This epidemic has been a window into our politics," said Larry Levitt, who leads health policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been tracking responses. “Particularly over the past couple of weeks, a political divide has emerged.”

It is an election year divide that could have deadly consequences.

As his campaign struggles for attention, leading Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden has called for a nationwide lockdown to replace the patchwork of local responses, which have varied even among neighboring communities in the same states. Trump, meanwhile, is largely allowing local officials to choose their own course and has encouraged them to compete for scant federal resources.

Politically, the strategy may be working for the first-term Republican president. With the election seven months away, Trump's favorable ratings are ticking up, even if his numbers have fallen short of past presidents during times of crisis. Yet the GOP's loyalty will almost certainly be tested in the weeks ahead as the virus spreads from the blue-state coastal communities deeper into red-state middle America.