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Two Mountain West States Have Joined An Interstate COVID-19 Pact. Will It Help?

May 3, 2020
Originally published on May 4, 2020 1:02 am

This week the governors of Colorado and Nevada joined West Coast states in something called the Western States Pact. Its stated aim is to bring together states with a “shared vision for modifying stay at home orders and fighting COVID-19.” 

The U.S. now has at least three such regional collaborations. 

As the publication CityLab wrote, “The foundation of these three multistate compacts ... is a once little-known planning framework, known as megaregions, that shows just how much big chunks of the country are interlinked. The pandemic, it turns out, is exactly the kind of massive but geographically clotted crisis that reveals what Europeans have called ‘territorial cohesion.’”

Robert Yaro, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, is writing a book about the benefits of so-called megaregions. 

“In the Northeast, there's so much interaction that if Connecticut shut down retail and New York didn't, there'd be people driving across the state line and so forth,” he said. “What we're seeing already in places like the Northeast and the Midwest -- and in the West now -- is that the governors are collaborating around reopening policies, they’ve collaborated around sharing PPE, medical supplies and devices.” 

In the West, that coordination appears to be more piecemeal. For one, Colorado doesn’t share borders with any of the other member states. There’s a swath of Idaho, Utah and Arizona -- all non-members -- in between. And Colorado is starting to reopen, while other member states remain under stay-at-home orders. 

Yaro says even if states aren’t coordinating their re-opening, the Western States Pact could prove valuable down the line. 

“I don't think there's any downside. I mean, basically at a minimum it's about sharing insights and information,” he said, noting that our states have collaborated in big ways in the past, like the Colorado River Compact and the interstate highway system.

“Nobody knows how deep this recession is going to be or how long lasting it's going to be,” he said. “But it's possible that by the end of the year, we'll be looking at depression-era levels of unemployment and business failures and so forth. And we're going to need some strong measures like we did in the 1930s to put people back to work, and you can imagine states sharing those experiences, sharing collaborations around gaining federal support for those initiatives and so forth.”

Participation in the pact doesn’t necessarily hew to party lines. All current members of the pact have Democratic governors, and three of the non-members have Republican governors. But Montana and New Mexico both have Democratic governors that haven’t joined. 

And as NPR’s Kirk Sigler told All Things Considered, “You've got the Democratic governors of Colorado and Montana actually doing a far faster reopening than it would appear here in Republican-led Idaho or next door in Oregon.”

A spokesperson with the Wyoming governor’s office said they weren’t invited to the Western States Pact and pointed out that the governor there “never issued a stay-at-home order for Wyoming, so joining a pact that includes coordinated lifting of statewide interventions would not be appropriate.” Utah never issued a stay-at-home order either, just a directive. Spokespeople with the New Mexico, Utah and Idaho governors’ offices did not provide a reason for passing on the pact. All three noted that even though they haven’t joined the pact, their governors are in regular contact with those of neighboring states. 

As Wired pointed out, “Past multistate coalitions have tended to be impermanent. The ones that self-assemble after regional disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes usually disassemble when the disaster is over.”

“The interesting question is, how much does what happens now carry forward beyond the acute phase of the crisis? How much of it is just dealing with a crisis versus creating precedent or new norms?” David Jones, a professor of health policy at Boston University, told Wired. “I don’t know the answer to that question.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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