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Government, Politics & Issues

Parson Vs. Pritzker: How Missouri And Illinois Governors Differ In Handling Coronavirus

Missouri Governor Mike Parson (left) and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker have taken different steps to prepare for the coronoavirus in their states.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio and Brian Mackey | NPR Illinois
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (left) and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker have taken different approaches in dealing with the coronavirus outbreaks in their states.

As the federal government leads the national response to the coronavirus, Illinois and Missouri are examples of how states are crafting their own plans, and how they differ, during the health crisis. 

Of the many differences between Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and his Missouri counterpart, Mike Parson, response to COVID-19 is at the top of the list. While Parson is quick to remind residents that the pandemic is not a doomsday scenario, Pritzker relays possible worst-case situations at his daily press briefings. 

Both Parson and Pritzker have declared a state of emergency, which allows them to get funding and make quicker decisions. Pritzker did that on March 9, when Illinois had 25 positive cases of the virus. Parson declared an emergency on March 13; Missouri had four confirmed cases at that time. 

Illinois was hit with positive cases of the virus early on in the pandemic. It now has more than 2,500 confirmed cases, while Missouri has just over 500. This could be why the two governors have responded differently, but political scientist Chris Mooney, of the University of Illinois-Chicago, said the philosophies of the two parties — Pritzker is a Democrat, while Parson is a Republican — are definitely a factor. 

“The Republican inclination is to avoid government intervention,” Mooney said. “Whereas the Democratic inclination is to let the government jump in and get the job done.”   

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Parson has been a strong backer of President Donald Trump’s response to the virus. He’s relied heavily on direction from the federal government and said the administration is performing well. 

“I don’t think there’s any question that the president, the vice president, everybody out there is trying to do everything they possibly can to prevent this virus, to take care of this virus, and to help the people in our country,” Parson said in a recent press briefing. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.” 

Which is in stark contrast to Pritzker, who has been quick to criticize Trump’s response. 

“Make no mistake,” Pritzker said. “We have long since passed the moment when we thought we could count on the federal government to lead in the face of this unprecedented situation.”

Pritzker took to Twitter after Americans returning to the country experienced hours-long lines to receive a coronavirus screening at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. 

“Instead of being alerted by federal customs and border patrol, my administration learned through Twitter about the unacceptable and frankly dangerous situation at O’Hare International Airport,” Pritzker said in a press briefing on March 15. “I don’t usually get heated on Twitter, and I always try to work through official channels when possible, but when I saw hundreds of people crammed together for many hours at O’Hare in exactly the conditions that I have been warning about for days, I was furious.”

Trump fired back after Pritzker appeared on "Meet the Press" and criticized the federal response to long lines at airports. 

When it comes to ensuring residents stay healthy, outside of a recent order to limit all gatherings to 10 or fewer people, Parson is preaching personal responsibility. 

“If the people of Missouri want to protect themselves and their loved ones, it’ll be through social distance, common sense and taking on personal responsibility,” Parson said. “Those have to take place for us to put an end to it; it’ll be up to the individuals of this state.” 

Pritzker, on the other hand, has been quick to use his powers as governor to essentially put Illinois on a total lockdown. He announced public and private schools would be closed March 17-30, closed all bars and restaurants to the public from March 16-30, and issued a stay-at-home order for the state last week. 

“I want to be 100% clear about what will drive my decision-making in the weeks ahead: science,” Pritzker said. 

Of the many stark contrasts between the two state leaders, one in particular is that Pritzker takes decisive action, said Anita Manion, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. 

“Pritzker talks about state action and that they’re doing everything in their power in the state working with the federal government or petitioning the federal government,” Manion said. 

She said Parson is taking a more conservative approach. He focuses on what others can do to keep themselves and others healthy.

“He’ll make a recommendation or say something about schools and bars and restaurants, but no implementation. He’s pushed all of that to the local levels, which, in itself, is very different than what’s happening in Illinois.” 

Manion also notes that Parson is running for election, which could also play a factor. 

“I don’t necessarily think this is driving his strategy, but if something backfires and it’s implemented by local governments — like lots of people losing their jobs or parents scrambling for day care — the backlash isn’t on the governor, because he didn’t implement that,” Manion said. “It would be on those county and city officials who made that decision.

"To me, that is putting a lot of responsibility back to the local level, where I don’t think they have the authority or the resources to respond in the way that is needed.” 

Manion said Pritzker’s method might not be received well by rural residents in downstate Illinois. 

“They can see this as big government run amuck,” she said. “I think they can ask, ‘Why did you close down our schools and my work but you wanted us to go to the (presidential primary) polling places and vote?’” 

As of Thursday night, Illinois has 2,538 cases of the virus and 26 deaths. Missouri has 502 cases and eight deaths. Additionally, Illinois has tested 16,631 people for the virus. Missouri is not keeping track of that data, but DHSS says the state is completing about 2,000 tests per day. 

Despite their political differences, both governors said they’re remaining transparent and trying to offer hope to residents as the pandemic continues.

Correction: Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker declared a state of emergency on March 9. An earlier version of this story had an incorrect date.

Follow Jaclyn on Twitter: @DriscollNPR

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