Here’s a surprise. In New England, only the Republican governors of New Hampshire and Vermont have issued COVID-19 executive orders that direct all individuals to stay home unless otherwise allowed to go out.
That finding comes from a review of all of the New England governors’ executive orders that restrict travel and business activity.
To try to “flatten the curve” and reduce COVID-19 transmissions, New England governors have taken similar approaches, with some notable differences.
Though Massachusetts and Connecticut are listed by several news organizations as having issued “stay home” orders, Govs. Charlie Baker and Ned Lamont have issued “stay at home” advisories, not orders.
The governors of Rhode Island and Maine have ordered non-essential businesses to close, but the closest they got to a stay-home order came in Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo’s March 22 executive order that closed non-essential businesses.
“All business services personnel that can work from home are required to do so,” it states.
Business closures and limitations on gathering size are the primary methods by which New England governors have restricted people’s mobility.
All New England governors have divided businesses and non-profits into “essential” and “non-essential” categories and have ordered non-essential businesses to close.
And all have banned gatherings of more than 10 people. (Conn. Gov. Ned Lamont on Thursday limited gatherings to five people.)
Every governor created a long list of essential businesses, which makes these orders far less strict than they at first appear.
So many businesses are listed as essential that it would be shorter to list the types of businesses required to close (as Maine’s order did) than to list those allowed to stay open.
Late this week, Massachusetts and Rhode Island added additional travel restrictions. Rhode Island’s Raimondo ordered anyone traveling into the state from New York State to quarantine for 14 days. Massachusetts’ Baker asked everyone traveling into the state to quarantine for 14 days.
New Hampshire has not attempted to limit cross-border travel. Though Gov. Sununu has issued a stay home order, it contains numerous exceptions. And the list of essential businesses (here) is long.
Maine Gov. Janet Mills, an aggressive regulator during the legislative session, has been the least aggressive issuer of COVID-19 executive orders in New England. On Tuesday she ordered non-essential businesses closed but has resisted many other orders, including a stay home or shelter in place order.
Mills explained her reluctance to issue a stay-home order by saying at her Tuesday press conference, “there are public health risks to people staying in place as well as public health risks to people not staying in place. We want everyone to be cautious and courageous at the same time.”
Governors clearly were weighing lots of potential unintended consequences and tradeoffs. One consideration was whether people would stay home without being told.
Cell phone data show that New Englanders were already starting to stay closer to home before more restrictive orders were issued.
A COVID-19 social distancing scoreboard created by data analytics firm Unacast, which monitors cell phone GPS data, shows that most New England states experienced a sharp decline in miles traveled throughout March.
New Hampshire was one of only a few states to receive an “A” rating for achieving at least a 40% reduction in miles traveled by March 23. Vermont also got an A. Maine was rated the worst in New England, with a decline of only 26%.
Unacast’s data show that, nationally, miles traveled declined sharply until last weekend, when they flattened and rose again. It’s possible that the expectation of more restrictions caused a short-term increase in travel, perhaps for shopping or to enjoy a last gasp of personal freedom before settling inside.
That might have happened in New Jersey. That state’s shelter-in-place order was issued on March 21. The state quickly saw a V-shaped spike in miles traveled after the order.
The big takeaway is that every New England governor has tried to balance competing values and impose the least restrictive orders that might achieve the desired results. Their differences are largely a matter of degree. And that indicates a broad bipartisan consensus that even when trying to fight a deadly contagion, tradeoffs have to be made and government coercion limited.