While the coronavirus crisis has heightened the role of governors across the country, it also has put a charge into state legislatures.
In the month since coronavirus infected the public consciousness, 35 state legislatures have introduced more than 310 coronavirus-related bills, passing 112 of them so far.
Some have passed laws of substance — transferring millions of dollars from their rainy-day funds, imposing protective measures for health care professionals, expanding sick leave for workers and precluding landlords from evicting tenants, according to a review by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
And several of those states have passed COVID-related laws that are as strange as the sight of masked grocery shoppers.
You had the random shoutouts: Tennessee lawmakers adopted a resolution honoring Dr. Anthony Fauci, the thoroughly Brooklyn native, for his “invaluable service to the American people during the COVID-19 outbreak.” Utah lawmakers expressed “support for the Chinese people.”
Then there were these eye-rollers:
- Florida lawmakers urgently passed a law … declaring the Florida State Seminoles the 2020 national basketball champs, since COVID-19 wiped out the NCAA tourney. This truly mythical national title gave the football school its first national hoops title, ignoring two things: 1) Florida State hasn’t made it past basketball’s Elite Eight since 1972. 2) The Seminoles’ cross-state rival — the Florida Gators — were fourth in the SEC and on the verge of going to the NCAA tourney as well. But hey, Florida gonna Florida.
- In Hawaii, state lawmakers urged the governor to create a color-coded advisory system to alert the public to the current level of coronavirus danger — proving, once again, that Hawaii really does love its rainbows. No word on whether that color code would mirror the confusing colors of the threat-level midnight bar of terror after 9/11. Hawaii elected officials also urged all commercial airlines to “thoroughly clean and disinfect their aircraft between flights to prevent the spread of illnesses and disease.”
- In Alabama, a law was passed urging individuals to fist bump rather than shake hands.
In all, Alabama filed seven pieces of legislation — losing out (as in football) to Louisiana, which introduced an astonishing 33 pieces of legislation.
By contrast, Nebraska and Iowa were among the least-active legislative bodies in the nation, each passing one coronavirus law or one packaged law. Iowa passed a law designed to steer appropriations during the crisis and to remove the classroom instructional time requirement for students whose schools are now closed. Nebraska, meanwhile, steered one of the biggest amounts of money ($83.6 million) in the nation from its rainy-day fund to the governor’s emergency cash fund.
Of course, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds have issued a flurry of directed health measures — some meaty, some not so much. Lids on crowds. Lids on mixed drinks.
A number of Omaha law firms are tracking those measures, big and small. Koley Jessen, Kutak Rock, McGrath North, Baird Holm, Fraser Stryker and Husch Blackwell, among others, are tracking COVID-19-related laws and financial relief packages for employees and employers, businesses and corporations.
Husch Blackwell, which advises businesses and government agencies and has a lobbying arm, has a team of about 20 attorneys and staffers monitoring laws across the nation, said Dave Lopez, an Omaha attorney.
In mid-March, Lopez and his colleagues began developing a state-by-state guide on directed health measures, stay-at-home orders and restrictions from Alaska to Wyoming. Lopez said they update the site daily.
“When the scope of this became clear, we knew this public-health crisis would have an impact on our clients’ operations,” Lopez said. “Many of our clients are in critical sectors like agriculture, health care, food service. They want to ensure they can remain operational through the shutdown orders.”
Early on, the database was in constant flux. Now, only eight states, including Nebraska and Iowa, are working without a statewide shelter-in-place order. Even so, the terms “shelter in place” and “essential worker” have different meanings in different states.
The database gives an interesting snapshot of the landscape of America. In Florida, essential businesses allowing workers to avoid a shutdown order include pool boys and landscapers.
Michigan has been stringent in its guidelines — restricting essential workers to anyone who is necessary to sustain or protect life and outlining how many people can be in a building based on its square footage. Closer to home, Reynolds expanded her nonessential businesses to include tobacco or vape stores, gaming and adult entertainment stores, malls, museums, libraries, campgrounds and social clubs, including those at golf courses.
Ricketts followed suit Thursday, closing these spots for the rest of April: all beauty/nail salons, barbershops, massage therapy services, gentlemen’s clubs, bottle clubs, indoor theaters and tattoo parlors/studios. Ricketts also suspended all organized team sports, adult or youth, until May 31.
The scattered approach of states will be as interesting in retrospect as it is in real time, said Lopez, a former assistant Nebraska attorney general.
“What works in New York is different from what works in Nebraska,” Lopez said. “At the end of all of this, when you take the body of actions that have been taken to stem the tide and you line that up against the infection statistics, I think it will provide an overview of what was effective.”