By Ken Bredemeier
Governors of at least five U.S. states, all conservative Republicans supportive of President Donald Trump’s push to jump-start the national economy in the face of the coronavirus threat, are moving quickly to reopen some businesses in their states.
The leaders of the five southern states — Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — have all said in recent days that certain businesses can reopen in their states now or within the next week or so.
However, they must at least in part retain two-meter physical distancing restrictions between customers and shopkeepers.
Their push to reopen shuttered businesses and start to rehire some of the 22 million workers laid off in the country comes as a new national poll by the Washington Post and University of Maryland shows that nearly two-thirds of those surveyed believe that it will be June or later before they think it will be safe for gatherings of 10 or more people.
First-term Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday issued the most sweeping new directive for opening businesses. But he drew immediate pushback from several city mayors and public health experts in Georgia who said the state still has too many coronavirus cases to safely resume normal commerce and did not meet Trump’s own new guidelines to start phasing in an economic resurgence in the country as a whole.
Kemp said he would allow gyms, barber shops, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys, among other businesses, to reopen on Friday, while requiring that they still follow social-distancing guidelines and screen their employees for signs of fever and respiratory illness.
He said theaters and dine-in restaurants would be permitted to open next Monday. A statewide stay-at-home edict expires at the end of April.
“By taking this measured action, we will get Georgians back to work safely, without undermining the progress we all have made in this battle against COVID-19,” Kemp said.
But the mayor of Atlanta, the state’s biggest city and an international air transportation hub, assailed Kemp’s decision.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, said in a statement, “More than 19,000 Georgians have tested positive for Covid-19 and the numbers continue to increase. It is the governor’s prerogative to make this decision for the state, but I will continue to urge [residents of] Atlanta to stay at home, stay safe and make decisions based on the best interests of their families.”
Mayor Bo Dorough in Albany, at the center of Georgia’s coronavirus outbreak, told CNN, “I understand that the governor had a difficult decision to make. I do, however, think he made the wrong decision.”
In the neighboring state of South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster said Monday most retail stores can reopen, albeit under limited circumstances. Businesses will be allowed to open with a 20% occupancy capacity, equivalent to five people per 92 square meters.
“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 Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis gave a reopening task force five days to develop recommendations and placed executives from two of the state’s biggest tourist attractions, Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, on the panel.
DeSantis said Florida can “bounce back in a very thoughtful, safe, and efficient way.”
Some of the state’s Atlantic Ocean beaches have already reopened, but the beach reopening in Jacksonville last weekend drew widespread mocking on social media as beach-goers ignored social distancing. An internet hashtag quickly branded them as “Florida morons.”
In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee said a “vast majority” of businesses in the state would reopen by the end of next week on May 1, with some reopening by next Monday, April 27.
But he added a caveat, saying, “Social distancing works, and as we open up our economy it will be more important than ever that we keep social distancing as lives and livelihoods depend on it.”
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott took a measured approach between a push from state business leaders to reopen and health professionals saying it is too soon.
He said plans would be announced next Monday but would be determined by “data and by doctors.”
“Opening in Texas must occur in stages,” Abbott said last Friday. “Obviously, not all businesses can open all at once on May 1.”
Abbott said a too-soon reopening of businesses would risk a resurgence of coronavirus outbreaks and “be more likely to set us back, rather than to propel us forward.”