Myth and Reality from the Early Days of COVID

July 31, 2023


  • There were very few actual partisan policy differences in early reactions to COVID
  • Schools reopened nationwide at roughly the same times
  • North Carolina navigated COVID much more successfully than many other states


Pop quiz – no cheating.

Imagine, if you will, two Governors of U.S. states at the onset of the COVID pandemic in early 2020:

  • Governor 1 declared a state of emergency on March 1st. They issued a mandatory stay-at-home order and banned gatherings of more than 10 people. They ordered schools, daycares, non-essential retail and all bars and restaurants to be closed. They also ordered out-of-state travelers to the state to self-quarantine for two weeks, and set up highway patrol checkpoints on major highways entering the state to enforce the order. Restaurants and bars were kept closed for over six months.
  • Governor 2 waited to declare a state of emergency until March 8th. They, too, issued a mandatory stay-at-home order and banned gatherings of more than 10 people. They ordered schools, daycares, non-essential retail and all bars and restaurants to be closed. But they refused to order any travel restrictions for out-of-state travelers, and reopened all restaurants after about 60 days.

Knowing only the above information, could you make an educated guess as to the political party of each leader? (The answer is below.)

Many people assume they could – but most would be wrong. Three years on, with COVID having faded into a part of our background reality (and with excess deaths only now returning to normal), the partisan wars over pandemic policy have all but obscured what actually happened – particularly in those early days. Accusations about “lockdowns,” “vax mandates” and “shutting down schools” have become so overblown that many have long since left reality behind. Indeed, many partisans are now claiming credit – or outrage – for things that simply did not happen at all.

But facts are stubborn things. And it’s time to set straight what really happened in North Carolina, and across our nation, when the COVID pandemic struck our nation.

By the way – looking for the answers to the pop quiz? Governor 1, whose COVID policy was in most ways the more aggressive, is none other than newfound COVID skeptic, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Governor 2, whose policy was mostly more lenient, is North Carolina’s Roy Cooper.

When COVID hit America

The COVID global pandemic was, it goes without saying, the greatest calamity to hit America during President Trump’s already calamitous single term in office. After first ignoring the viral outbreak, and then denying it, Trump declared a state of emergency on March 13, 2020. In the same event, Trump famously made his “I don’t take responsibility at all” statement for the complete lack of testing preparation, and it was mostly downhill from there. Shortly after New York City was forced to deploy mobile morgues to accommodate the massive influx of dead bodies, Trump vowed to “reopen the country by Easter” and suggested people try injecting themselves with bleach to treat COVID.

Trump’s personal leadership failings aside, his administration itself did some wise things: they put Dr. Anthony Fauci in charge of the White House’s COVID task force and initiated Operation Warp Speed, which successfully produced a highly effective and safe COVID vaccine that was first made available in December of 2020. By that time, roughly 350,000 Americans had already died from the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Though many have forgotten it today, there was very little partisan difference overall in state policy reactions to the COVID pandemic. In a recent piece for the New York Times, investigator David Wallace-Wells analyzed the state-by-state record on stay-at-home “lockdown” orders, mask orders and school closures. He found vanishingly little difference in policy choices between states with Republican and Democratic governors:

North Carolina’s stay-at-home (“lockdown”) order lasted for a grand total of 40 days, from March 27th to May 8th. This was longer than some other Democratic-led states, like Nevada or Colorado, and shorter than some Republican-led states, like Ohio and New Hampshire. But nearly all orders began and ended in similar timeframes.

The same holds true for school closures. In the spring and summer of 2020, nearly all schools across the United States, regardless of political leanings, were closed.

Here in North Carolina, Governor Cooper, along with DHHS Secretary (and now CDC Director) Dr. Mandy Cohen, offered every local school district a range of plans (A, B and C) they could decide to take in reopening for the fall of 2020. A majority of North Carolina’s local school boards themselves – not the Governor or state lawmakers – chose Plan C, for fully remote instruction. By October, most school districts across the state were back to offering in-person instruction for elementary students. Similarly, Florida’s DeSantis administration also allowed the state’s biggest counties (Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach) to remain remote-only, and for other local school districts to to offer varying options.

The reason is obvious: in the fall of 2020, no one still really knew much about COVID, how it was transmitted, or what its long-term effects would be. As badly as everyone wanted children back to in-person instruction, few wanted to risk a COVID outbreak. Moreover, teachers and staff themselves – many of whom are older – did not yet have access to vaccine protection, and were reluctant to risk their health for politicians’ political expediency.

Regardless, Republican lawmakers in North Carolina attempted to force full school reopening without safeguards anyway, drawing a veto from Governor Cooper and forcing legislative leaders to negotiate. Together, they quickly found common ground to return all schools to in-person instruction in April of 2021, though most (especially elementary schools) had been back in classrooms long before.

Overall, North Carolina navigated COVID remarkably well by the metric that matters most: how many of its people died. Compared to Georgia, South Carolina or Tennessee, North Carolina saw far fewer deaths from COVID per capita. No policy is perfect, especially during a crisis – but steady leadership from Governor Cooper demonstrably saved many lives in our state.

Manufactured outrage

The global COVID pandemic was a deeply traumatic and terrifying crisis for all of humanity. As of this writing, over 1.1 million Americans have died of COVID (JHU), and nearly 7 million globally (WHO). Those numbers cannot begin to encompass the true magnitude of human cost from the pandemic, however, with long COVID and COVID-related disabilities and symptoms reaching well into the tens of millions.

The politicization of COVID, particularly of the vaccines that protect people from it, have truly been another lingering disaster. Triumphs of American medicine and modern science, the vaccines have been vilified by cynical and nihilistic know-nothing critics for partisan gain, leading tragically, but predictably, to far greater deaths from COVID among Republican voters. That, indeed, is the true outrageous crime of the COVID era, not supposed policy differences of COVID response – of which there were, in fact, very few.

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