Ruben Navarrette: In the battle against COVID-19, what matters most is your ZIP code

Summary: In combating the virus, states should have the full cooperation and support of the federal government. Uncle Sam should get them everything they need — and then get out of the way.

Ruben Navarrette column
Ruben Navarrette commentary
Tribune graphic

SAN DIEGO — The coronavirus doesn't care what you learned in civics class. It has turned the concept of federalism on its head.

In a crisis, taxpayers expect that local, state, and federal government will work together to serve and protect the public.

During the COVID-19 crisis, federal government has lagged behind. President Trump thinks the response is about him. He hates being criticized, and so he's constantly on a war footing — not against the pandemic, but against the media.

Meanwhile, it's the nation's governors — Democrats like New York's Andrew Cuomo, and Republicans like Ohio's Mike DeWine — who have risen to the occasion and taken up the reins of leadership.

The public has noticed. According to a recent CBS/YouGov Poll, in the battle against COVID-19, Americans are more likely to trust their state governor over Trump — 66% to 44%. A Monmouth University Poll found that 50% of Americans thought Trump had done a good job in dealing with the outbreak, while 72% give high marks to their state's governor.


In this war, states and local communities are the tip of the spear. That's where the stakes are highest. It's where people are dying.

In America 2020, geography is destiny. How seriously Americans take the threat of contracting the virus, the amount of actual danger we're in, and the timeline we're facing has everything to do with what state we live in.

It's ironic. Before COVID-19, Americans wasted a lot of time dividing ourselves up over race, religion, gender, ethnicity and class. Now, none of that matters. What counts is what part of the country we live in.

Americans haven't cared this much about what state flag they live under since Gettysburg.

New York is ground zero, with at least 10 times more cases than any other state: New York Gov. Cuomo has warned other states not to be cavalier. Our time will come, he said. This scourge is coming to a neighborhood near you.

It was the Golden State, under California Gov. Gavin Newsom, that led the country in issuing a "stay-at-home" order in early March. Not that Californians have proven to be very skilled at following orders; police officers now patrol the beaches. Heaven forbid that a public health emergency should interfere with our leisure time.

If the nation can be described as one big family, Florida is the obnoxious unruly teenager who doesn't take anything seriously and thinks the rules don't apply to it. Gov. Ron DeSantis finally got onboard this week by issuing a statewide "stay-at-home" order, but he exempted churches and other houses of worship. Floridians might want to pray for better leaders.

Meanwhile, Washington state — where the first cluster of COVID-19 cases appeared in early March, near Seattle — seems to have benefited from strict adherence to social distancing protocols. Infection rates have leveled off.


Elsewhere, it's state vs. state. Rhode Island wants to keep out New Yorkers, while Florida is trying to stop people from entering from Louisiana. If you have out-of-state license plates, expect a state trooper to pull you over and ask you how you're feeling.

Trump wants the governors to take the lead in combating the virus. But, in a recent conference call with state leaders, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee told Trump in a conference call that the states need the federal government to call the plays.

The states should be careful what they wish for. People are now debating whether there should be a heavy-handed nationwide lockdown, if Americans don't get a lot better at keeping their distance — and fast. Maybe there should be. The virus doesn't respect state boundaries. So why should those boundaries get in the way of public health?

Of course, local and state governments are better equipped to handle enforcement, hand out services, run hospitals, deal with the homeless, and do a bunch of other things that the federal government can't or won't do.

For the most part, Washington should defer to the localities; not the other way around.

This thinking is new for me. Before COVID-19, I was a federalist. Whether the issue was gay marriage or education reform, I thought the federal government should lead the way. I was dismissive of states' rights, and saw them as an excuse to discriminate or disenfranchise.

I was wrong. In combating the virus, states should have the full cooperation and support of the federal government. Uncle Sam should get them everything they need — and then get out of the way.

Ruben Navarrette can be reached at


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