It feels like coronavirus is a major disaster. Here’s why Trump hasn’t declared it one.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) says that President Trump should declare a national emergency for the coronavirus pandemic.
There are at least 1,680 cases of the coronavirus in the United States and the numbers are climbing. Broadway and Disney World shut down. Major sports leagues, like the NBA and MLS, suspended their seasons. Schools are closing. And governors across the country declared states of emergency.
The series of events that unfolded this week paralyzed the country and fueled the already-growing concerns over the coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic seems to warrant an emergency or disaster declaration from the President that would free up additional federal funds and set the Federal Emergency Management Agency in motion. But that’s yet to happen, though President Donald Trump teased the possibility Thursday.
“I don’t want to say that,” Trump said. On Friday morning, the President slammed former President Obama over his response to the swine flu.
Trump may be able to unilaterally make the decision to declare an emergency or make a disaster declaration — both of which are authorized by the Stafford Act and would unlock additional resources, like supplies and logistic help — but it’s generally up to individual states to make that ask to the administration and tailor it to their needs. And for now, it appears states themselves are scrambling to sort out what they need to respond to the increasing number of coronavirus cases before they make that request.
FEMA personnel, for example, have fielded questions from state staff about what support the agency — which is within the Department of Homeland Security — can provide to respond to the outbreak, said Steve Reaves, president of the union that represents FEMA workers.
“More than anything right now, it’s ‘What’s available and how soon?’ ” Reaves said. “Those have been the most pressing ones in the last two days.”
An official in Washington state, among the states hardest hit by the coronavirus, told CNN that the state is continuing to review “all options in terms of federal assistance,” for example, how it might be able to obtain more protective gear.
To make a request for a declaration, states also have to show they’re overwhelmed. New Jersey, for example, hasn’t reached that point yet.
The New Jersey governor’s office told CNN, “A FEMA declaration would not be available yet,” citing the threshold that would need to be met. “Due to the recent release of more than $15 (million) in HHS funding that can be used for these COVID-19 costs, the State thresholds for FEMA assistance certainly have not been met yet,” according to a statement from the office Thursday.
To that end, every state has a unique set of circumstances it needs to review to decide next steps.
“From my perspective, the most logical way to provide additional federal support in this scenario would be to follow the traditional playbook,” said Daniel Kaniewski, who previously served as deputy administrator for resilience at FEMA — meaning that when states are overwhelmed the governor asks for assistance through a declaration request that activates FEMA.
“Even though that’s the most logical, it may not be applicable, or there may be other reasons to do it differently this time,” said Kaniewski, who’s now a managing director at Marsh & McLennan Companies. “There’s always an exception to the rule. Just because we normally do it that way for hurricanes or other disasters doesn’t mean it has to be done this way.”
Kaniewski said that while the President has the authority to declare an emergency, he’d want to ensure that the available resources in that event would meet governors’ needs.
Why is a disaster or emergency declaration important?
This week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, in conjunction with Sens. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state, and Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, sent a letter asking Trump to “immediately” consider disaster declaration requests for the coronavirus.
But a declaration might not be necessary yet.
“It’s possible that a) the states have the resources it needs b) that the state has most of the resources it needs and the resources it doesn’t have it’s getting from HHS and the $8.3 billion,” Kaniewski said.
“I think in the future if those — and that future can be today or a week from now or it could be never — if they require supplemental assistance beyond what they’re getting from HHS, there would be an obvious time to submit an emergency declaration request.”
A declaration would put FEMA, which is supporting the Health and Human Services Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for coronavirus response, in a position to be the coordinator.
“The center of gravity switches from HHS headquarters to FEMA,” Kaniewski said.
More federal funds would become available, as would supplies, personnel and any other support.
For example, FEMA might help with logistics, like the transport of residents if needed, and put up temporary medical facilities. Those resources could come from across federal agencies, from stocked warehouses and through contracts. States will likely communicate what they need and where they need it.
Reaves recalled that during the California wildfires, for example, FEMA came in, put up tents, set up command and control centers, and worked with state and local governments to track casualties.
Declarations might also be issued down the line, so the federal government can reimburse state and local governments for the costs incurred during an incident. For example, President Bill Clinton issued an emergency declaration in 2000 over the West Nile virus, authorizing millions of dollars in federal funds to reimburse affected local governments.
Declarations can also start as one type of emergency and then change to another in order to access more resources. These declarations are separate from the national emergency Trump declared over the southern US border last year.