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Southern states largely go it alone in reopening decisions

Some states begin reopening despite pandemic
States taking different approaches to reopening the economy 02:16

Baton Rouge, Louisiana — Governors in 17 states have committed to regional coordination to reopen their economies during the coronavirus outbreak — but none are in the South, where leaders are going it alone, just as they did in imposing restrictions.

As questions about when and how to ease virus-control measures becomes increasingly politically charged, governors in the Deep South have resisted any appearance of synchronization, instead driving home their message that each state must make its own decision.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp plans to have many of his state's businesses up and running again as soon as Friday. Fellow Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced that most businesses will begin resuming operations as soon as next week.

Some other Republican leaders were taking smaller steps, like reopening their beaches. In the virus hot spot of Louisiana, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards was also taking a more cautious approach, announcing he'll first allow some non-emergency medical procedures to resume next week.

But no one wants to coordinate. Edwards, for one, notes neighboring states have less expansive outbreaks. Even when several Republican governors held phone calls to talk about reopening plans, they insisted they weren't working in concert — and left out their Democratic counterparts in the region.

"We're trying to take, where we can, our destiny into our own hands," said Kemp.

He's been one of the region's most aggressive so far, allowing gyms, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors and other businesses to reopen Friday, if owners follow social-distancing and hygiene requirements. Restaurants can bring back dine-in service and movie theaters can reopen by Monday.

Such moves runs counter to the advice of many experts and have left many businesses wary.

The lack of regional coordination also raises concerns that a loosening in one state — especially with insufficient testing — could lead to a spike in cases in another. But agreement would be difficult in a region with such disparate approaches.

The strategy stands in stark contrast to coordination elsewhere. California, Oregon and Washington have agreed to synchronize how they will begin lifting their shelter-in-place restrictions. Seven states in the Northeast have done the same as have seven governors in the Midwest. In the latter two regions, governors from both parties are involved.

In the South, it's ad hoc: Kemp said he's talked to other Southern governors, but he didn't coordinate with any of them, even though urban areas in Georgia lap over borders with several. Edwards and Republican Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves have also had conversations because of the travel and business shared between New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But Edwards said he did not believe further coordination was necessary.

"I think if you look at those areas where this is happening, you have very similar situations in terms of the amount of COVID that they have in those various states and they have a much greater degree of inter-connectedness in terms of their economies," he said.

Beyond easing the medical restrictions, Edwards says he's waiting to see if Louisiana's improving trajectory — fewer hospitalizations, fewer people on ventilators — remains on course, before deciding what steps he'll take when his stay-at-home order expires April 30. Louisiana still has more cases and far more deaths than any other state in the region.

For most people, the highly contagious coronavirus causes symptoms such as high fever and a dry cough. But some people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, become much sicker and even die.

Elsewhere in the South, decision-making is varied.

Even as neighboring Georgia pushed to reopen, Republican Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey decided to keep a stay-home order in place through the end of the month. Meanwhile, Arkansas' Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, never issued such a mandate, though he's imposed other restrictions.

Reeves in Mississippi and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, have allowed beaches to reopen. Reeves also has said that nonessential businesses can start offering curbside pickup or delivery.

In South Carolina, barricades came off public boat ramps Friday. Closed retailers, like department stores and specialty shops, were next, but only, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster insisted, if strict social distancing was followed. He let local governments decide whether to reopen beaches. Most declined, for now.

Still, it wasn't clear if the state's COVID-19 cases had peaked yet, since state health data shows the number of coronavirus tests have fallen. Georgia, too, is seeing a testing decline.

Experts say that's the opposite of what's needed as restrictions ease. The leader of South Carolina's teaching hospital warned the state also needed robust tracing of the people who have had contact with the sick.

"We need to have in place the pieces to keep a second wave from becoming crippling," said Dr. David Cole, president of the Medical University of South Carolina.

The outbreak has hit different parts of the country in different ways — and the response has been just as varied — so there isn't one playbook, said Dr. Richard Oberhelman, an infectious disease specialist at Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans.

"Coordination makes sense, but the flip side is different states are in different parts of the epidemic," Oberhelman said, adding that communication remained key.

Some fear that if Southern states get too far out ahead of the rest of the country, they could attract visitors — and possibly open the door to more infections.

Myrtle Beach has suffered, but if it starts to ease restrictions on hotels and short-term rentals, it could see an influx of visitors looking for warm weather far from hot spots. Without extensive testing, that could spell disaster, infectious control nurse Debbie Borst told a meeting of the Myrtle Beach City Council.

"The public hears one thing, but they don't realize we don't have testing available like other cities and states, so I'm worried that they have a false sense of security concerning our numbers," Borst said.

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