Opinion: A lesson in how politics controls the way states are emerging from the pandemic

Saladin Ambar | June 10, 2021 | Opinion
What I learned from a weekend at the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border
Saladin Ambar

One couldn’t be sure if it was the best of times or the worst of times. What was evident from my 36-hour jaunt to Lambertville-New Hope last weekend was that it was better times. What with the downright Dickensian cold of Memorial Day weekend a thing of the past, people were out and about, shopping, picnicking, antiquing and such, in these two historic towns on either side of the Delaware River along the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border.

And while masks could be seen fairly readily in both towns, there was a discernible difference on the New Jersey side, where shopkeepers were somewhat more inclined to require their use. All in all, it was a very hopeful scene — one that offered a sense of how New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, and their states’ respective legislatures, have decided to help citizens safely emerge out of restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.

I arrived in Lambertville on Friday, June 4, the day New Jersey lifted its indoor gathering limits, along with the mandate that businesses require their employees to mask up. Vaccinated employees are now free to show you their smiles.

Friday was also the day Murphy lifted the state’s health emergency declaration, marking a significant turning point in New Jerseyans’ pandemic odyssey. Murphy did retain some of his emergency powers as governor, including giving individual businesses the right to decide if they wish to keep their indoor mask requirements or not.

Jekyll and Hyde

Perhaps this explains the bit of the Jekyll-and-Hyde feel moving about from one antique shop to getting that morning double espresso. The first three seconds entering a business was a bit like the ancients reading the entrails of some animal: May I be unmasked? Shall I don the mask over one earlobe in a state of facial schizophrenia? Shopkeepers’ silence and facial features were read with great care. On occasion, there were those signs still in place from the virus’ darkest days. “Masks Are Required for Entry.” Those were few and far between, but more discernible in Lambertville.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania voters voted to limit Gov. Wolf’s emergency powers nearly three weeks ago. Recognizing the state of affairs, Wolf said “the voters have spoken, and Pennsylvania wants to change the rules. And I think it is incumbent upon us to [do] the best we can to make those rules work.”

The practical side of this development meant getting one’s favorite macaroons in New Hope in an environment more closely resembling life in 2019 than 2020. The conservative legislators of both states have pushed back against their progressive governors’ efforts to address the coronavirus this past year, although Wolf has faced a tougher time of it than has Murphy. In the end, it is the blessing of vaccinations that has reduced the political heat over debates related to gubernatorial powers. But what about moving forward?

Nearly 100 years ago, the historian Charles Thach wrote one of the most influential studies of executive power’s origins in America. In his 1923 book, “The Creation of the Presidency,” Thach argued that it was the power embedded in New York’s governorship that became the model for the American presidency, rather than that of the British king. Executive power in the states has always shaped our understanding of, and comfort with, emergency powers — be it those held by governors or presidents.

Subtle effects of policy and politics

What the pandemic has brought to light is the variability of that comfort, depending on one’s personal politics and where one lives. Certainly, that variability is far less evident when comparing New Jersey and Pennsylvania’s governors’ responses to the coronavirus, than say, New Jersey and Florida’s.

Still, the subtle effects of policy and politics are sometimes felt only a bridge away. The beautiful return to something that felt like “normal” life this past weekend, was actually more ephemeral than that. Watching kids at play in Peddler’s Village, or lovers holding hands as they crossed the Delaware River, gave one a greater appreciation for the small entreaties of life. And a bit of melancholy for how much we’ve missed them.

There was also a hint of how politics play out in the lives of Americans whose comingling across state lines sometimes illuminates that amusing, peculiar, and undoubtedly American phenomenon of federalism.

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