6 Questions with Gov. John Carney
‘We were in unchartered territory and were motivated in part by fear’
After we decided to publish letters written by Delaware lawmakers and business organizations to Gov. John Carney, we gave him the opportunity to respond to the questions being raised in these letters and by other business leaders. He addressed some of those questions on May 21 with Editor Peter Osborne but did not get to others, including plans to support Delaware businesses that want to test employees before they return to work. He did not, in every case, respond directly to the questions provided in advance of the interview.
Delaware has flattened the curve with grocery stores, Walmart, Home Depot, Lowes and other essential businesses like construction all open and following CDC guidelines and state restrictions. Have they been given preferential treatment?
The big box stores are open because they sell food, and that’s been more of an enforcement question. Early on, we told them they were doing a terrible job. We told them to limit customers to 20% of fire code capacity and to establish lines of demarcation. I went into a Walmart and they were shoulder to shoulder. It was a disaster, but we came down pretty hard on them and the construction people and it got a lot better.
How do you respond to people saying you’re not moving quickly enough to reopen based on the data?
Closing businesses was one of the most difficult parts of this and getting them reopened has been a big focus. We had to use a blunt instrument to shut down non-essential businesses. Businesses that are formed around public gatherings like restaurants were the most negatively affected. Family-owned businesses were seeing that all their work across generations could possibly be for naught.
We were in unchartered territory and we were motivated in part by fear. We turned to reopening as quickly as we could based on advice from the White House task force, which provided triggers for reopening by phases. We didn’t close everything down like some states did. We kept construction open but I’d drive by work sites and then call Bryan Short and Ed Capadanno (from the Delaware Construction Association and the Associated Builders and Contractors) and tell them people needed to follow the rules. Landscaping stayed open. We’ve tried other things, like opening by appointment only and curbside.
The White House task force said those things should wait until Phase 1. We’re actually rolling into Phase 1. This virus hasn’t gone away. With all this economic carnage, the last thing we want to do is waste all that by being too irresponsible. We lifted some of our restrictions – we never closed down the beaches while others did – and frankly we didn’t have a lot of tools to warn Delawareans not to come..
What is it going to take to get the economy fully open?
There’s a balance that needs to be struck here. You need to focus on inspiring public confidence. If you open and people don’t feel comfortable, they’re not going to come. Xavier Teixido said early on that his workers need to feel safe coming into work and his customers need to feel that it’s safe to come back into his restaurants.
The decision to reopen has been way harder than the decision to close. We have to have some level of confidence that we’re not going to undo the progress we’ve made. I don’t want to do that one day too late and I don’t want to go backwards if we call it wrong. And we’re doing this with lots of input from leaders across the state.
Delaware took many of the actions it did because you didn’t want hospitals overwhelmed, anticipating a surge to the point where you were looking for additional facilities. You’re now allowing elective surgery to offset their losses. Many businesses clearly need Memorial Day weekend to stop the bleeding. Why wait until June 1 to begin Phase 1?
We got into this quickly and dealt with the large increase in cases in Sussex County, notwithstanding some arm wrestling that we had to do with downstate poultry plants and the White House. We increased testing in those communities and focused on hospitalization rates. That gave us a comfort level on other things we’ve done. We’re doing a rolling reopening. You can’t turn on all the lights all at once in one weekend and undercut all the work that went into flattening the curve.
Why can Ocean City hotels be open and Delaware beach hotels can’t? Why not lift the restrictions on leisure travelers for hotels or on short-term rentals for owners?
We want to keep people apart and keep them safe. Our only mechanism for out-of-state visitors is the 14-day quarantine and the continued ban on short-term rentals but we felt that was the best way to gradually reopen the beaches. We’re using lots of signage, focusing on education not enforcement.
We are trying to keep the crowds down. The more conservative public-health people would like to keep those [restrictions] in effect longer. We did not issue a travel ban, and there was a difference of opinion on that. You need to remember that this started in Delaware with a group of scientists from the University of Delaware who went to a conference in New Jersey and brought it back. And that’s how it can happen.
You created a task force of educators this past week to come up with ways to reopen the schools in September. Why didn’t the state create a similar task force of business leaders and small businesses to find ways to reopen the economy and help them feel like they’re being included in the decision process?
We’ve been consulting on a daily basis with businesses. Decisions are being made so fast [snaps fingers] with direct input from business owners and calls with mayors, legislative leaders, nonprofits, and minority community leaders. We’ve had 11 Zoom town halls, about half of which were targeted toward small business. I just don’t think that a task force would have been realistic