Southern States Push to Reopen With Economic Pressure Rising

Southern Republican governors who were among the last to institute shelter-at-home orders are now pushing to become the first to lift them. Tattoo parlors, movie theaters and nail salons in Georgia will begin opening up this week along with beaches, florists and shoe shops in South Carolina.

The announcements came Monday afternoon after Georgia Governor Brian Kemp spent the weekend talking to his fellow Republican governors in the South about how best to restart their economies in response to guidelines issued last week by theWhite House.

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster said he was forming an “Accelerate South Carolina” task force to look at quickly and safely opening up the state’s economy. “We must be ready to stomp on the gas when the green light comes up,” McMaster said. Retailers were allowed to reopen at 5 p.m. Monday as long as they enforce social-distancing requirements.

Coming just four days after President Donald Trump issued the guidelines, the announcements raised questions about whether the states were moving too quickly. Dr. Deborah Birx, the U.S. State Department immunologist and one of Trump’s top medical advisers, said Monday evening that it was up to governors to determine whether they are meeting the criteria set by the White House last Thursday.

“We have asked every governor to follow the guidelines, just as we’ve asked every American to follow the guidelines,” she said. “But each of the governors can decide for themselves whether they’ve reached specific guidelines in specific areas.”

At a news briefing in Atlanta, Kemp said the state was opening “in the same way that we carefully closed” on April 1, which was about three weeks after many other states issued their shelter-at-home orders. He said the decision to allow the reopening of many businesses on Friday comes as new data suggest Georgia’s outbreak may have plateaued.

Kemp said Covid-19 emergencies had declined and that new diagnoses “appear to have flattened.” He also detailed efforts to expand testing and screening of potential infections, including a mobile app developed by Augusta University that will allow any Georgian to input their symptoms and get approval for a test if needed.

The reopened businesses will have to comply with social distancing and other measures. “I think our citizens are ready for this,” Kemp said. “People know what social distancing is.”

The White House Coronavirus Task Force last week issued recommendations for states to meet prior to a phased reopening. These include proof of decreasing signs of illness among residents, a health-care system capable of keeping up with demand, and either a downward trajectory of documented cases in a 14-day period or a downward trajectory in positive cases, as a percentage of total cases, in that same period — with the volume of tests either staying flat or increasing.

Recommendations, not Requirements

Public-health experts say all of these conditions should be met before a state considers reopening.

With the virus still spreading across the country, states would be hard-pressed to meet all of these criteria. But because they are only recommendations, not requirements, states can proceed with reopening their economies.

In Georgia, the public health department reports a peak of 811 confirmed cases on April 6. Cases show a downward trajectory since then, though April 14 came close to the peak with 779 confirmed cases. A decrease of 32 cases is still a decrease, but not one which would necessarily leave public-health experts feeling confident in a state’s ability to reopen.

The state’s public-health department referred questions to the governor’s office, which declined to comment further on whether the state meets the White House Task Force criteria.

South Carolina appears to also be on a downward trajectory, but the state’s public-health department releases weekly numbers, rather than daily. There has been a drop off since the week ending in April 11, but it is unclear if that proves a consistent 14-day downward trajectory in daily cases. The state’s public health and governor’s offices did not reply to requests for comment.

In Tennessee, the state has seen 17 consecutive days of single-digit percentage increases in the number of cases, said Laine Arnold, a spokesperson for the governor’s office. “We continue to work closely with the White House for a phased reopening approach,” Arnold said, adding that the state has been aggressive on testing and reported lower hospitalization rates than the national average.

Tennessee public-health department data show cases declining from an April 1 peak, but cases on April 17 soared.

Other states have not yet been able to meet the White House guidelines, despite Trump’s optimism that they could. Hawaii and Wyoming were both name-checked by him last week as being able to reopen imminently. Reached for comment about this by Bloomberg News, both states said they do not meet all of the task force requirements.

In any case, the guidelines are merely suggestions. If the states decline to follow them, they won’t be held liable by the federal government.

The swift reopening in Georgia is premature, said Harry Heiman, an associate professor at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health.

“On the one hand,” Heiman said, Kemp and his team “seem to understand the elements that need to be in place. On the other hand, those elements don’t seem to be in place.”

Even the contingencies in the governor’s order — like hair dressers wearing masks if masks are available — are haphazard, he said. So is the stepped-up testing, because it relies heavily on a new app that hasn’t yet been tested in the field.

Georgia, gyms, fitness centers, tattoo parlors, barbers, hair salons, and massage therapists can resume operations in a limited way beginning Friday, Kemp said. He also indicated the state is ready for a restart of elective surgery and medical procedures that are deemed essential, as well as restaurants and supper clubs. Bars and nightclubs will remain closed for now.

In South Carolina, which has had just over 7,000 diagnosed cases, McMaster lifted restrictions put in place early this month, including on furniture and sporting goods stores and florists, effective Tuesday.

“In light of the common sense being shown by the great people of South Carolina, we are ready to take some steps that will help South Carolina assure that our economic health is as strong as our public health,” McMaster said.

In Tennessee, Governor Bill Lee announced a more measured plan to reopen. One of five Republican governors Kemp called over the weekend, Lee said he would not extend his stay-home orders beyond April 30. He cited “single-digit increases” in the rate of growth of the Covid-19 epidemic in the state, which he called “very encouraging.” But he added that the “economic outlook tells a very different story” including a record spike in unemployment.

The openings come as other regions of the country — in the Midwest, the West, and the Northeast — have formed coalitions to weigh re-opening timelines and protocols. Most are opening on far slower timelines.

— With assistance by Paul Shukovsky, Andrew Ballard, and Josh Wingrove

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