By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN — Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia reopened barbershops and bowling alleys last week while Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended the state of emergency to keep businesses closed for another month. The two opposing views on re-opening the economy show state leaders are hopeful but uncertain about what “returning to normal” will mean in their states in coming weeks.
Mr. Kemp, a Republican, was widely criticized for loosening restrictions too soon and a University of Georgia poll showed a majority of residents think his plan is too risky.
Even President Trump thinks Kemp jumped the gun by easing restrictions when Covid-19 cases and deaths in Georgia are still rising. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said community spread of the virus during the past three weeks in Georgia is the 12th highest in the country.
The CDC released a study last Wednesday that found more than 80 percent of hospitalized coronavirus patients in Georgia were black but African Americans make up barely half of the population. The study looked at patients in seven Atlanta hospitals and one in southern Georgia.
Last month in Michigan’s capital, gun-toting protesters occupied the state capitol and truck drivers clogged downtown Lansing honking their horns to urge an end to the shutdown. The rallies were promoted and organized by right-wing groups like Freedom Works and the Mackinac Center, a conservative think tank funded by Sec. of Education Betsy DeVos.
Gov. Whitmer, a Democrat, said the protesters were “outrageous” for carrying swastikas, Confederate flags, and nooses into the capitol building. “These are very good people,” said President Trump.
“Black people get executed by police for just existing, while white people dressed like militia members carrying assault weapons are allowed to threaten State Legislators and staff,” tweeted Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI).
“For anyone to declare ‘mission accomplished’ means that they’re turning a blind eye to the fact that over 600 people have died in the last 72 hours,” Whitmer said. The rate of new COVID-19 cases in Michigan has slowed in recent weeks but 4,179 people have died, and that is the third-highest total number of deaths in the U.S. with a fatality rate of 9.42%. That is high. It means about one out of ten people who catch the disease, die from it.
Seven states are coordinating their plans to reopen with Michigan. Last week, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear consulted with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. The Midwest regional planning group also includes Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois.
Similar regional groupings of states in the Northeast and Northwest are slowly emerging from Stay at Home orders in consultation with their neighbors. In the South, it’s been a largely ad hoc approach. Several Republican governors have talked amongst themselves but have not coordinated plans to ease restrictions except to say that each state must make its own decision.
ABC News reported the lack of regional coordination is raising concerns that a loosening of restrictions in one state could lead to a spike in cases in another especially if they border each other and have different timetables for opening businesses. In addition, the lack of testing in places like South Carolina and less rigorous contact tracing could result a second wave of the virus that nobody wants.
“We’re telling people either it’s your life or your pocketbook. And people want to get back to work but they want to get back to work with health in mind and a safe environment,” said Rep. Rick Staples, (D, Knoxville).
National Public Radio detailed the various plans in Southern states to reopen and what restrictions still apply. They are available at https://www.npr.org/2020/05/01/847415273/south-coronavirus-related-restrictions-by-state. Another resource state guide from Husch Blackwell, a business consultant firm, is here: https://www.huschblackwell.com/covid-19-return-to-work-resource
Phase 1 of Gov. Lee’s plan to reopen the economy began last week in 89 of 95 counties. Six counties, including Davidson and Shelby, have their own health departments and have their own plans. The state guidelines include limiting the number of customers to 50% of fire code capacity, appointments only with no walk-ins, social distancing, wearing masks, and taking employees’ temperatures every day. Those rules are in line with CDC recommendations but not with one of Lee’s own conditions: a sustained decline in the number of new cases. The last week of April saw two days with 1,000+ new cases reported. Lee went ahead with his plan to reopen the state anyway. It’s risky.
“I believe we should wait for the science to tell us when to open up and right now the science doesn’t tell us that,” said Rep. Gloria Johnson (D, Knoxville).
Testing continues as the state reopens for business. Lee’s office announced last week that 170,000 Tennesseans have been tested for COVID-19 and President Trump has called on states to test 2% of their populations each month.
Lee announced that 70,000 residents living in 700 nursing homes and assisted living facilities will be tested in the coming weeks. The Unified-Command Group, Lee’s COVID task force, will be adding testing sites in minority communities and drive-through testing sites are open on weekends. Tennesseans can get a test five days a week at county health departments.
Widespread testing and rigorous contact tracing is necessary to stop the pandemic. More testing usually turns up more cases and discovering hotspots and new outbreaks of the disease will continue to be worrisome.
In April, outbreaks in nursing homes and long-term care facilities reported 500 coronavirus cases and 60 people died. On April 23, there were 1,424 new COVID-19 cases reported to the Tennessee Department of Health. On April 27, the state began to reopen.
On May 1, the Tennessee Department of Health reported 1.156 new cases; 897 were from Trousdale Turner State prison. The coronavirus has swept through Trousdale State prison and Bledsoe County Correctional Complex in Pikeville. At Trousdale 1,224 inmates and 22 staffers tested positive. Almost all were asymptomatic. Last week, the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) announced plans to test all inmates and staff at its 10 state prisons.