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June 12, 2021, 1:38 p.m. EDT

As virus cases wane, U.S. governors weigh ending emergency orders

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Much of the federal pandemic aid — including $350 billion for state and local governments in President Joe Biden’s recent relief package and reimbursements for vaccine distributions — could flow to states even if they end their emergency declarations.

But some federal aid could be affected. States are eligible for enhanced federal food aid benefits only if they have a COVID-19 emergency or disaster declaration in place, according to a Congressional Research Service analysis.

For many governors, keeping emergency declarations in place may be less disruptive to the public than rescinding and later re-imposing them if the pandemic worsens, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

But for other governors, it might be advantageous to relinquish their emergency powers, he said. “Quite frankly, in a state where you’re worried that people will accuse you of misusing those authorities, if you don’t need them, you might want to get rid of them,” Benjamin said.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who is up for re-election this year, ended the state’s public health emergency earlier this month as part of a deal with Democratic lawmakers, who control the Legislature. He also signed legislation eliminating more than 100 executive orders while retaining just over a dozen, including those placing moratoriums on evictions and utility shutoffs. Murphy called it a “clear and decisive step on the path toward normalcy,” but some Republican lawmakers said it didn’t go far enough in limiting his powers.

In Pennsylvania, the Republican-led Legislature voted Thursday to end Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency declaration — making use of new powers granted to lawmakers under a constitutional amendment approved by voters last month. But the immediate practical effect is limited, because lawmakers also voted to extend hundreds of regulatory waivers granted by Wolf’s administration through Sept. 30.Ending emergency declarations can affect a variety of lower-profile policies, such as relaxed licensing requirements in many states that have allowed more medical professionals to return to the workforce.

After Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, ended his emergency declaration May 4, the state stopped updating its online dashboard with the number of available hospital beds and its stockpile of ventilators, masks and other personal protective equipment. Rescinding the emergency order also triggered a 30-day countdown to resume in-person meetings for governmental bodies, and ended the ability of state agencies to hire additional staff and shift resources.

Benjamin, of the public health association, said he expects more states to end their coronavirus emergency orders in coming weeks because of improved infection and vaccination data, as well as public fatigue over long-running precautions.

“There’s an emotional or psychological message you’re sending that you’re saying ‘OK, we’re no longer in the emergency state,'” he said. “There’s an opportunity there to give people a sense of normalcy.”

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