Northam, a pediatric- neurologist-turned-politician, has consistently been slower than Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to order measures to compel social distancing — the principal way to delay the virus’s spread.
Northam was the last of the three to close the state’s schools, order a state of emergency and seek activation of the National Guard. He still hasn’t joined Maryland and the District in ordering a full shutdown of on-site eating and drinking in restaurants and bars.
By contrast, Hogan has attracted bipartisan praise and national attention for his early moves to close public establishments and project an air of urgency. Bowser’s performance has generally been a beat slower than Hogan’s, but she has been quick to act overall.
“We elect executives first and foremost to protect us,” said Chuck Thies, a longtime District political consultant. “When it comes to Larry Hogan, he has done that consistently. He has been the regional leader at the forefront of taking bold steps to protect his constituents.”
Thies continued: “On the opposite end of that is Ralph Northam, who has proven himself once again to not be a shining star. In the middle has been Bowser.”
It’s impossible to know the eventual repercussions of the three leaders’ actions, given the uncertainty about the pandemic’s length and ultimate effects. Like many other state and city leaders, all three have been more proactive and factual than President Trump, who ignored warnings from intelligence agencies, played down the threat for weeks and has repeatedly spouted misinformation about it.
More tough decisions are likely to come soon. The Washington region may have to order people to stay home except for essential business, as states including California and New York have done.
For now, Northam’s approach has surprised observers and drawn public criticism even from fellow Democrats. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) and Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey (D) have faulted Northam for allowing Northern Virginia restaurants to remain partially open while those across the Potomac are closed.
“If you’ve got Maryland and D.C. shutting down, but we aren’t, that cuts tremendously into the effectiveness of what Mayor Bowser and Governor Hogan are trying to do,” Garvey said. “We’re going to see the consequences, and they’re not going to be pretty.”
Northam did ban gatherings of 10 people or more in restaurants and bars, but Garvey said enforcement was impractical.
Garvey said she thinks Northam, who hails from Virginia’s Eastern Shore, has a blind spot regarding Northern Virginia’s geography.
“It’s sometimes hard to understand how the national capital region is a single integrated area,” she said.
Another factor may be Northam’s reserved, low-key style. He has defended his actions by saying his preference is to “be in charge, but also be calm.”
Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., said, “The governor tends to be cautious, but depending on how this story progresses, he may have been cautious about the wrong thing.”
Grant Neely, Northam’s chief communications officer, said Virginia’s response differed from those of Maryland and the District partly because it is larger and more rural. He also said the governor was wary of disrupting the Virginia economy, which has been the region’s strongest.
“The reality in the absence of federal leadership is that every state has had to do this on their own,” Neely said. “If you look at the three jurisdictions, they are physically, geographically and demographically very different.”
He continued: “If you were to shut down the economy, put the entire thing on lockdown, that means people will be out of work, by definition. That is going to create a whole lot of other complications, such as depression, alcoholism and domestic violence.”
In Maryland, Hogan has burnished his reputation as a forceful, can-do leader. He and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) were first in the nation to order state schools to close, acting on March 12. Hogan activated the National Guard on the same day, and guardsmen have already begun erecting a virus testing site in parking lots at FedEx Field in Prince George’s County.
Northam waited until March 20 to activate the National Guard and has yet to deploy it. Activating the Guard in the District requires federal approval, which Bowser sought March 16 and obtained two days later.
By coincidence, the pandemic erupted while Hogan was chair of the National Governors Association. That has added to his prominence and helped him receive a dozen invitations to appear on national television.
Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Hogan stressed the importance of taking constructive action rather than affixing blame. He did so after New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who was also on the show, faulted the White House for having been slow to react to the virus.
“Instead of just talking about what didn’t get done, I just want to get things done,” Hogan said.
But Hogan also acknowledged that the federal government’s response has been inadequate.
“We are getting some progress now. It’s not nearly enough. It’s not fast enough,” Hogan said.
Hogan’s performance has reinforced his credentials as a leader of the minority faction in the Republican Party that has distanced itself from Trump.
“He wants to be a voice of the Republican Party as a counter narrative to Donald Trump,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “He really is stepping up and saying, ‘Look, we might be Republicans, but our first obligation is to our citizens.’ ”
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) praised Hogan’s handling of the virus crisis as “methodical, appropriate and timely.” He added, “I would say ‘measured,’ except these critical times don’t call for a measured response.”
In the District, Bowser acted a day after Hogan in issuing the order to close schools, although both orders took effect on the same day. She frustrated some restaurant and bar owners by issuing three different directives in four days about how they should limit customers’ interactions, and ended up ordering a full prohibition on on-site drinking and eating.
But Bowser was ahead of Hogan on Friday in announcing that D.C. schools would stay closed until April 27. Maryland schools are slated to reopen at the end of March, although it seems inevitable the closure will be extended.
Bowser defended her response while declining to go into detail about how it differed from those of Hogan and Northam.
“My job is to work with the information we have for D.C. I assume that’s what my colleagues are doing as well,” Bowser said in an interview Sunday.
She said she waited in some cases until she was sure the directives would be effective.
“It has been very important for us not only to make sure that we issue an order, but that we actually have some of the operational work done in order to make sure that people will comply with it,” Bowser said.
Bowser showed her toughness in two instances. Early in the crisis, she called on hundreds of parishioners at Christ Church in Georgetown to self-quarantine after its rector was confirmed to have the virus. And her quick threat of legal action forced the owner of seven D.C. restaurants to back down after initially saying he would defy restrictions she had imposed.
“My sense is that she’s doing a good job,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). He said Bowser’s office “worked in lockstep with us” on an economic relief bill that passed quickly.
Thies, a frequent Bowser critic, said the mayor should have acted more quickly to shut down bars and restaurants.
“When you have a rotted tooth, you don’t wiggle it. You tie it to a doorknob and yank it out,” he said.
But he focused his scorn on Northam. “I expected him to be the best of them,” Thies said. “It makes me question the medical school that accredited him.”