The Slatest

Is the South Ready for the Coronavirus?

An empty street in New Orleans on a sunny day.
A usually bustling street in New Orleans’ French Quarter, as seen on Friday. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

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The coronavirus is spreading swiftly through the South. The state of Florida now has the fifth-highest number of cases in the country. The virus’s spread in Louisiana is among the fastest in the world. Beaches in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and the Carolinas all recently drew crowds of non–socially distant spring breakers. Reports of raucous partying in Southern cities such as Nashville, Tennessee, continued long after New York and the West Coast showed just how bad things could get. And churches remained stuffed with congregants, while some deeply conservative Southerners swatted away concerns about the pandemic, labeling it a liberal hoax meant to damage President Donald Trump, who has downplayed the severity of the pandemic.

Some state leaders have followed him and expressed reluctance to do anything. But the response in the region has varied. Other Southern leaders, including conservative Republican politicians, have heeded the warnings of public health experts and responded with a greater sense of urgency.

Here is how each state in the Southeast has responded to the pandemic.

Alabama: 1,019 cases, 17 deaths

Only a few cities, such as Birmingham, have instituted a shelter-in-place order. “Y’all, we are not Louisiana, we are not New York state, we are not California,” Gov. Kay Ivey said last week. “Right now is not the time to order people to shelter in place.” The day before, Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth had released an open letter to the governor’s coronavirus task force, criticizing it for not taking a “realistic approach” about the coming “tsunami of hospital patients.”

Under a statewide order issued Friday, all nonessential businesses have been closed until April 17. Schools will remain closed through the spring, and gatherings of more than 10 people have been banned. Alabama’s beaches will remain closed through April 17. Many Alabamians are still defying the bans; there has been a recent uptick in people going out onto state waterways for recreation, according to officials.

Arkansas: 566 cases, 8 deaths

Arkansas lawmakers on Friday voted to create a $173 million coronavirus fund, and schools and businesses such as bars, hair salons, and restaurants have been closed. But the state has not addressed the possibility of any kind of stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order.

Instead, Gov. Asa Hutchinson urged residents not to gather in groups of more than 10 people and recommended people head to state parks for socially distant recreation. Thousands of residents responded by signing a petition urging the governor to “stop telling people to visit, and to stop crowding the river and parks in a feeble attempt at social distancing.” While Hutchinson maintained that the parks were a good place for residents to spend time, he directed the state to recommend some state parks be closed to stop visitors from other states from coming. He also declared Sunday a “Special Day of Prayer” in the hope that “we can be unified in prayer thanking God for his love and mercy” and to ask for wisdom.

Florida: 6,741 cases, 85 deaths

Florida, a state with a significant population of retirees, has been one of the hardest hit. Gov. Ron DeSantis has been heavily criticized for his slow response to the pandemic and his refusal to issue a statewide stay-at-home order—even on Tuesday, he said he wouldn’t do so because the White House had instructed him not to. But on Wednesday, he finally reversed his position and announced a statewide 30-day order to go into effect the next day.

DeSantis started to indicate he was taking things more seriously on Monday, when he issued a stay-at-home order for Southeast Florida. Several of those counties already had strict measures in place, and others in the state, including the counties containing Tallahassee, Orlando, and Tampa, had issued their own orders as well. (Walt Disney World expects to remain closed for the foreseeable future.) On Monday, the state also announced that its school closures would extend until May.

DeSantis has also introduced some precautions to limit the travel of outsiders from New York and New Orleans into the state, sending the National Guard to greet the former at airports and establishing checkpoints with its border with Alabama to catch the latter. All people arriving from either location were notified they had to self-quarantine for 14 days or face jail time.

Georgia: 4,117 cases, 125 deaths

After a period of reluctance, Gov. Brian Kemp issued a stay-at-home order for the state on Wednesday. Previously, he had shut down schools through April, closed bars and nightclubs, and urged elderly and immunocompromised people to stay home, while some county commissioners and mayors, including Atlanta’s, called for more state action and tried to fill the gaps by closing nonessential businesses, authorizing curfews, and issuing shelter-in-place orders. Democrats in Georgia had also expressed outrage after Kemp’s chief of staff said in a Facebook post on Saturday that local governments were “overreacting” and that their “overreach” would hurt businesses.

Rural communities haven’t escaped outbreaks. According to the New York Times, Dougherty County, a majority-black rural county in the southwestern part of the state, is currently experiencing one of the worst clusters in the country. There have been 26 deaths in a county of 90,000 people, attributed in part to a February funeral that is now considered a “super-spreading event.”

Kentucky: 590 cases, 18 deaths

Gov. Andy Beshear ordered all nonessential retail businesses closed on March 23 and directed residents to stay “healthy at home.” He clarified that the order “doesn’t mean boarded in your home” but that residents should stay home unless for essentials or exercise. Beshear also ordered Kentuckians to not leave the state and to only cross the border for grocery stores or health care needs or if they are caring for a family member. Anyone who travels out of the state for any other reasons must self-quarantine for 14 days.

In Kentucky, the number of inmates in jails has been reduced by 28 percent in order to prevent the virus’s spread behind bars, though the state’s chief public defender warned in a letter that the state needs to drastically reduce the number of inmates in hopes of preventing a disastrous outbreak. Beshear said he was reviewing a more mild proposal for releasing some inmates.

Louisiana: 5,237 cases, 239 deaths

Louisiana is now the epicenter of the coronavirus in the South, with New Orleans as its central hot spot. Twenty-eight long-term care facilities have been identified as clusters, and New Orleans has the highest per capita death rate in the country. Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a stay-at-home order through April, closing schools and nonessential businesses.

The spread of the outbreak in New Orleans appears to be waning, thanks to social distancing measures, but it also appears to be accelerating in the rest of the state. Edwards said last week that Louisiana had the fastest rate of growth of coronavirus cases in the world.

Some experts believe that Mardi Gras in late February created the perfect conditions for the virus to spread around the city. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell told CNN that if the federal government had told her of the dangers of public gatherings, she would have canceled the celebrations. “Given no red flags, we moved forward,” she said.

Mississippi: 1,073 cases, 22 deaths

Gov. Tate Reeves has been criticized during the pandemic for his unwillingness to institute restrictions. Reeves, who was on a European vacation with his family in early March when his state experienced its first confirmed case, issued an executive order on March 24 that defined most businesses as essential and allowed some (such as churches) to be exempt from limitations on gatherings of 10 or more people. Retail stores could remain open, and restaurants and bars were allowed to continue to have dine-in services as long as they didn’t have more than 10 customers in one space at a time. (He later clarified that cities and counties were allowed to put more stringent restrictions in place overriding the executive order locally.)

On Tuesday, Reeves announced a two-week shelter-in-place order for Lauderdale County, which includes Meridian and which had a recent spike of cases.

North Carolina: 1,609 cases, 12 deaths

Gov. Roy Cooper has placed the state under a 30-day stay-at-home order. He also signed an executive order on Tuesday prohibiting any utility company from shutting off services to customers unable to pay in the next 60 days, and he blocked new eviction proceedings from being launched and urged those already in the process of evicting tenants to consider waiting.

South Carolina: 1,083 cases, 22 deaths

Gov. Henry McMaster has ordered restaurants’ dine-in services halted, access points to state beaches and waterways blocked (citing “behavior observed this past weekend”), and, as of Wednesday, all nonessential businesses closed for 15 days. He also authorized police to break up any groups of three or more people.

He has not, however, issued a stay-at-home order, even as a number of state legislators called for it. He said he trusted South Carolinians to follow social distancing guidelines. Some cities, such as Columbia and Charleston, issued their own stay-at-home orders.

Tennessee: 2,239 cases, 23 deaths

On Monday, Gov. Bill Lee issued a statewide order closing nonessential businesses. The 15-day “safer at home” order also instructed residents to stay home “as much as possible,” but it doesn’t have the power of enforcement. “This is not a mandated ‘shelter-in-place’ order because it remains deeply important to me to protect personal liberties,” he said. Lee had already resisted calls from some mayors and public health professionals to issue a statewide order, arguing that Tennesseans would be responsible and that a statewide mandate would be too difficult to enforce. The cities of Memphis, Knoxville, and Nashville had already put in place their own stay-at-home orders.

On Friday, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear told his residents not to cross the border into Tennessee. “We have taken very aggressive steps to try to stop or limit the spread of the coronavirus to try to protect our people,” he said. “But our neighbors from the south, in many cases, are not.” Lee responded by noting population differences between the states that made containing the spread much harder in his state, and he fired back at Beshear: “We test our citizens three times more per capita than the state of Kentucky.”

Virginia: 1,484 cases, 34 deaths

Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday issued a largely non-enforceable statewide stay-at-home order lasting through June 10. He was met with immediate opposition from Republicans, who challenged its length. The state’s primaries are on June 9, and Republicans suggested that the order would suppress turnout. Northam’s office said that the order does not apply to “the operation of government.”

A different coronavirus conflict is playing out in Lynchburg, where residents have expressed fury over Liberty University’s decision to allow students back onto campus. Last week, Jerry Falwell Jr., who has compared COVID-19 to the flu and posited that the response to it was intended to damage Trump, reopened the university, and 1,900 students returned. According to the New York Times, nearly a dozen students were sick with COVID-like symptoms as of Friday. One has tested positive for the coronavirus. Falwell has since said he is complying with the stay-at-home order, canceling all classes.

Northam has been challenged by Democrats for being overly cautious. Compared with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Northam has acted slowly. His was the last of the three governments in the region to close schools and shut down seating at restaurants and bars.

West Virginia: 162 cases, 1 death

West Virginia was the last state to confirm a case of COVID-19, but Gov. Jim Justice has attributed that lag to a lack of testing in the state. To try to slow the spread, Justice issued a stay-at-home order last week. Justice had already closed schools and many nonessential businesses. On Tuesday, he banned all elective surgeries and closed private campgrounds to visitors from outside the state, and he announced that the state’s primary would be moved to June 9.

Justice took one of his most drastic measures on Monday when he directed police to monitor roads for people arriving from coronavirus hotspots outside of the state. Anyone arriving from places such as New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, Connecticut, Italy, or China must self-quarantine for two weeks or risk being charged with obstruction. Justice also said authorities would conduct home checks to ensure that residents comply. On Tuesday, he acknowledged that this order might be unconstitutional, but he said he would continue to enforce it for safety reasons.

Update, April 2, 2020, at 12:30 p.m.: This post has been updated with information about measures in Georgia, Alabama, and Virginia.

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