Tensions in State–Local Intergovernmental Response to Emergencies: The Case of COVID-19

Published date01 September 2020
DOI10.1177/0160323X20979826
Date01 September 2020
Subject MatterGovernance Matters
SLG979826 186..194 Governance Matters
State and Local Government Review
2020, Vol. 52(3) 186-194
Tensions in State–Local
ª The Author(s) 2020
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Intergovernmental Response
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DOI: 10.1177/0160323X20979826
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COVID-19
Bruce D. McDonald III1 , Christopher B. Goodman2
and Megan E. Hatch3

Keywords
COVID-19, preemption, state-local relationships
The current outbreak of severe acute respira-
conflict about the “best” emergency services
tory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), the
provider. This leads some states to prefer a
virus that causes Coronavirus Disease 19
local response with state support and other
(COVID-19), has spurred a large governmental
states to prefer a more uniform, state-
response from all levels of the U.S. intergo-
mandated response enabled by state preemption
vernmental system. The emergency and disas-
of local actions. The latter has revealed an
ter response system of the United States is
often-dormant means of state preemption of
designed to be bottom-up, meaning responses
local ordinances: the executive order preemp-
are intended to begin at the local level with
tion. Accessible through the emergency powers
state and federal governments stepping in to
afforded to U.S. governors, this type of
assist with resources and oversight as needed
preemption is uncommon because it is oversha-
(Rubin and Barbee 1985; Schneider 1995,
dowed by legislative and judicial preemptions.
2008). The response to the current outbreak,
This article seeks to explore descriptively the
however, has been something else entirely, as
prevalence of executive order preemptions and
each level of government competes with the
discuss the implications of these preemptions in
others over dwindling resources and the author-
the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pan-
ity to respond to the crisis.
demic. These preemptions vary in their content,
We examine how the U.S. intergovernmen-
tal system of emergency response is designed,
how state and local governments have
1 Department of Public Administration, North Carolina
responded to the COVID-19 crisis thus far, and
State University, Raleigh, NC, USA
2
how this crisis has further exposed tensions in
School of Public and Global Affairs, Northern Illinois
University, DeKalb, IL, USA
the state-local intergovernmental system. We
3 Department of Urban Studies, Cleveland State University,
use the National League of Cities’ (2020)
OH, USA
COVID-19 Local Action Tracker to examine
city and state responses to the pandemic. We
Corresponding Author:
Bruce D. McDonald, III, Department of Public Adminis-
argue state-local intergovernmental response
tration, North Carolina State University, 209A Caldwell
is associated with many issues related to inter-
Hall, Raleigh, NC 27695, USA.
governmental relations broadly, particularly
Email: bmcdona@ncsu.edu

McDonald III et al.
187
with some representing policy minimums, oth-
states maintain a response plan that lays out
ers maximums, and some a combination of the
how state-based resources will be deployed and
two. Yet all types of preemption have substan-
how they will support and coordinate with their
tial effects on what local government adminis-
cities and counties in times of need. Though
trators can do to respond to their constituency’s
there is some variation on the structure of the
needs. Such constraints, when out of alignment
plans from state to state, these plans identify the
with local needs, can be challenging in normal
responsibilities assigned to state officials dur-
times but are potentially catastrophic in emer-
ing an emergency to minimize confusion and
gencies. Administrators will need to be creative
maximize the effectiveness of the state’s
in balancing responsiveness to their constitu-
response.
ents within such a limiting policy environment.
The bottom-up approach to emergency
response does not mean states do not play an
Intergovernmental Responses to
important role. As the chief executives of their
states, governors play key roles in emergency
Emergencies
responses (Waugh 2007). Governors are typi-
The intergovernmental response to emergen-
cally given a wide breadth of powers during
cies and disasters in the United States was
emergencies, allowing them to declare states
designed to operate from the bottom up (Rubin
of emergency, order evacuations, and mobilize
and Barbee 1985; Schneider 1995, 2008;
the National Guard. It is only after both local
Zhang, Liu, and Vedlitz 2020). Policies for
and state resources are exhausted that gover-
emergency response and preparedness are
nors issue requests for federal assistance during
based on the assumption that those closest to
a response. This approach to emergency
the emergency have the best perspective on
response allows for what Schneider (2008)
what help is needed. Accordingly, the response
refers to as a “‘pull’ system of intergovernmen-
to an emergency begins with local govern-
tal relief” (p. 718).
ments, typically led by the county, and follows
This emergency response structure has faced
a prescribed series of steps as the emergency
some challenges due to concerns surrounding
escalates to include both the surrounding local
homeland security. Since September 11, 2001,
governments and the state, and eventually the
Birkland (2009) notes that the federal govern-
federal government as needed (Kapucu 2008;
ment has preferred the top-down approach
Waugh 1994). This bottom-up structure places
allowing the federal government to use its
local governments at the center of emergencies
experts in times of need rather than relying on
and natural disasters. By starting emergency
local expertise during events that have national
responsibilities at the local level, officials can
implications. Such events are rare, however,
address the needs and specific conditions of the
allowing the default bottom-up structure to
community of which others may be unaware. In
continue.
anticipation of an event, local governments
In the context of a pandemic, the structure of
develop emergency preparedness and response
an emergency response remains uncertain due to
plans that adhere to certain state and federal
the novelty of the situation. National disasters
guidelines that outline how the government will
are typically geographically bound, but the ease
respond to a crisis and how it will coordinate its
with which the coronavirus spreads makes the
response with all levels of government
issue a national concern rather than a local one.
(Kapucu, Lawther, and Pattison 2007).
Research into bioterrorism preparation indicates
As higher levels of government become
the federal government might push for a top-
involved, their intended role is to assist in the
down response due to the national interest inher-
coordination of services and to support the
ent in a terrorist-released bio-agent and the
local response rather than supersede or replace
capacity of the federal government’s expertise
it (Kapucu and Hu 2016; Schneider 2008).
to track and treat those sickened...

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