As states grapple with the growing outbreak of COVID-19, some governors have issued emergency declarations laying the groundwork to implement state-level National Guard responses.
The governors of Washington, California, New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut have all declared individual emergencies.
As of Wednesday afternoon, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo remains the only state executive to activate the National Guard following an earlier disaster emergency declaration thus far.
Emergency declarations carry “additional powers and resources” that “vary from state to state,” including the activation of emergency operations centers and response plans and the “deployment of state personnel, equipment, supplies, and emergency stockpiles,” according to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
On Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed an executive order to streamline the state’s response to the virus and grant greater authorities to state officials, including the option to activate the Florida National Guard “as needed.”
“The Florida National Guard is not currently tasked with any active operational type missions in the field, but we are augmenting the state’s planning and logistics efforts,” Maj. M. Caitlin Brown, director of public affairs at the Florida National Guard, told Military Times. “It’s obviously a rapidly evolving situation, and so we are leaning forward in preparation for potential future missions.”
The declaration also enables state officials to establish field hospitals should the health care system become overwhelmed, among other measures.
“[Gov. DeSantis] and the [Florida] Department of Health’s highest priority at this time is to contain and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and ensuring anyone who is potentially infected is appropriately identified, cared for and isolated,” Ryan Ash, deputy press secretary for Gov. DeSantis, told Military Times. “The Florida National Guard, led by Maj. Gen. James O. Eifert, Adjutant General of Florida, stands ready to be deployed in order to accomplish this mission.”
Florida has 21 positive cases of COVID-19 with two reported deaths, as well as 155 pending test results and over 1,000 people monitored as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the Florida Department of Health.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency Tuesday, instructing state agencies to cancel all conferences and large gatherings and activating the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) to coordinate “health, human services, public safety” measures.
The order allows state officials wider authorities to obtain resources and deploy federal and state resources.
“The Massachusetts National Guard has not been activated at this time,” Don Veitch, director of public affairs at the Guard, told Military Times. “The Massachusetts National Guard is a diverse and highly trained force capable of assisting in a number of critical roles including; medical, transportation, biological response, decontamination and logistics… [and] is always ready to assist our interagency partners in support the commonwealth when called upon.”
As of Tuesday, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported a single confirmed case with 91 “presumptive cases” of the new coronavirus.
A state’s governor may activate the National Guard under “State Active Duty” status “in response to natural or man-made disasters or Homeland Defense missions.” In this capacity, Guardsmen remain “command and control” of the governor and are sourced and paid for by the state, according to the National Guard Bureau.
A governor may also activate the Guardsmen to support other states through assistance agreements in a multi-state response to an emergency, although the funding comes from the federal government under Title 32 U.S.C. status.
“In times of emergency, the National Guard Bureau serves as a federal coordinating agency should a state require help from the National Guard of another state,” Master Sgt. W. Michael Houk, National Guard Bureau spokesman, previously told Military Times. “The National Guard Bureau’s operation center is operating with increased staffing and hours and is prepared to coordinate support between the states and our mission partners in any whole of government response.”
Currently, the National Guard Bureau is serving in an advisory and support role, providing guidance and information to local governments, the Guardsmen and their families, a defense official said.
The Defense Department and the National Guard Bureau are working through the interagency process, “synchronizing” but “not actually directing traffic,” the official said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the lead federal agency tasked with combating the spread of COVID-19.
Cuomo’s declaration included a “containment area” within the city of New Rochelle, New York, where public health officials have identified a “cluster” of COVID-19 cases.
There, the Guardsmen were “mobiliz[ed] to deliver food to homes and help with cleaning public spaces in the containment area,” Military Times previously reported.
The defense secretary retains the authority to order National Guard forces to active duty under Title 10 U.S.C. when “necessary to maintain the national health, safety, or interest,” according to the Department of Homeland Security’s National Response Framework.
“I want every tool at my disposal in order to be able to protect Rhode Island,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said at a Monday press conference, as reported by NBC 10 Boston. Authorities there have confirmed five cases.
Lawmakers in Connecticut signed off Wednesday on Gov. Ned Lamont’s emergency declaration, which could have been vetoed by a special legislative committee. The state has confirmed two patients as of Tuesday.
Just as Massachusetts and Florida have not activated the National Guard, there are currently no plans for Washington, California, Rhode Island and Connecticut to activate their Guard troops.
There are now over 1,000 confirmed cases in the United States with 31 confirmed deaths, according to CDC Director Robert Redfield.
The World Health Organization declared the global coronavirus outbreak to be a “pandemic” as confirmed cases worldwide topped 113,000 Wednesday with over 4,000 deaths.
This story contains information from the Associated Press.
Dylan Gresik is a reporting intern for Military Times through Northwestern University's Journalism Residency program.