All three governors eventually issued stay-at-home orders as the number of coronavirus cases skyrocketed. And they are moving to reopen — much more slowly and methodically than other nearby states but in ways that take cues directly from President Trump.
DeSantis declared a victory of sorts while saying the state’s hospitals are far under capacity and that Florida has set the standard for responsible reopening. Still, he said, his state’s pace would be more moderate than others’. Trump, who last week blasted the governor of Georgia for his aggressive reopening plan, issued DeSantis the ultimate endorsement this week, bringing him to the Oval Office and showering him with praise over Florida’s response to the coronavirus.
“This really tracks what the president put out for phase one,” DeSantis said of Florida’s plan.
That means, as in Alabama and Mississippi, edging into reopening. The Sunshine State will allow retail stores and restaurants to open at 25 percent capacity inside, and outdoors with greater spacing between tables. Personal-service businesses such as hair salons will not yet be allowed to reopen.
DeSantis said the easing policy will go into effect Monday but will exempt Florida’s major population centers: Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, which have higher rates of infection than the rest of the state.
“Florida will take a step — small, deliberate, methodical and based on consultation with some of our greatest physicians — toward a more hopeful future,” DeSantis said. “We will get Florida back on its feet by using an approach that is safe, smart and step by step.”
The approach of the three states mirrors the types of consortia formally undertaken by governors in the Northeast, Midwest and West, though each of the three states has acted on its own. All three states also do not meet the reopening benchmarks set by the White House, including widespread testing or two weeks worth of declining infection rates.
But they’ve painted their new orders as measured efforts based on their progress so far. Diners are still barred from restaurant dining rooms in Alabama, but retail stores can allow socially distanced customers in to shop. In all three states, people can begin to trickle back to the beaches. Epidemiologists have warned that a quick reopening of states could lead to a surge of new infections.
In Florida, more than 33,000 people have been confirmed to have covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and more than 1,200 have died. In Alabama, more than 6,800 have tested positive and 251 have died. In Mississippi, nearly 6,600 people have contracted the virus and 250 have died.
Each state has large populations that are at high risk from the virus. Twenty percent of Floridians are over 65, an age group at high risk of covid-19 complications. Black residents of Mississippi and Alabama have died at higher rates than whites, igniting cries that the government is not doing enough to help minority communities.
“Let me be abundantly clear: The threat of covid-19 is not over,” said Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R). “We are still seeing the virus spread, and all of our people are susceptible to infection. The greatest disservice the people . . . may do is think by me lifting the comprehensive restrictions, that this is a sign that there is no longer a threat from covid-19.”
Ivey has won praise from Democrats — who previously criticized her as moving too slowly to issue a stay-at-home order — and Republicans in the state. But she and other governors in the South are walking a fine line, trying to placate mayors in cities, which are seeing the largest number of coronavirus patients, and officials in more-rural areas, whose residents want businesses to reopen.
Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, a Republican, said the city has recently seen an uptick in coronavirus cases, but he is also worried about skyrocketing unemployment.
“I think she is basing her decisions on the needs of citizens and their livelihoods,” Stimpson said of Ivey. “I don’t think it’s because the president has called her up and said, ‘Open up.’ . . . I don’t think it’s political. I think she is getting the message that people are hurting severely.”
Stimpson added that he would like to see Ivey go even further by opening up restaurants, a point echoed by Tony Kennon, the Republican mayor of Orange Beach. The city will reopen beaches Friday.
Kennon argues that state and federal politicians have overreacted to the threat posed by coronavirus. Instead of locking down entire states, Kennon believes the government should have more aggressively isolated those people who tested positive for the coronavirus, even if that meant quarantines in highly-infected areas such as New York.
“I believe the virus is real and its deadly, but its deadly to a narrow segment of the population,” Kennon said. “We should approach it by isolating those people at risk and opening our economy back up.”
In Mississippi, several prominent Democrats said they were surprised that Gov. Tate Reeves, a conservative Republican, has appeared reluctant in recent days to move toward a full reopening of the state’s economy.
Reeves is allowing retail stores to reopen with 50 percent of their previous occupancy limits. Mississippi’s beaches also will reopen, but restaurants and entertainment venues will remain closed.
Brad Chism, a veteran Democratic strategist in the state, said there would have been little political risk for Reeves to go even further in allowing more businesses to open.
But he said Reeves, who was elected last fall, appears to be mindful of the risks that the coronavirus continues to pose to Mississippi residents, including the 38 percent of residents who are African American.
“I don’t agree with the governor on much of anything, but on this he gets good marks for trying, albeit a bit late, in consulting with his experts in a more reasoned way and letting everyone know the scientists and epidemiologists are speaking to him,” Chism said.
In Florida, much of the criticism leveled at DeSantis has centered on the state’s 8,436 miles of coastline. Last week, DeSantis allowed counties to decide whether to reopen their beaches — a move that was controversial online but one that local officials said was no different from parks in urban areas reopening. Golf courses have reopened in some parts of the state.
“It was so nice just to be out here again,” Ken Pollack said after a four-hour round at the Madison Green Country Club in Royal Palm Beach, Fla.
Before stay-at-home orders were issued, Pollack, 75, played golf twice a week at Madison Green.
When he heard the course was reopening Wednesday after Palm Beach County relaxed some stay-at-home rules, he was one of the first to reserve a tee time.
“They’re being very safe. There’s hand sanitizer everywhere. They don’t want you touching anything, not even the flag pin,” Pollack said. “We all had to ride in separate golf carts. We couldn’t hug or shake hands. So it was different, but it felt good to be here.”
In Alabama, the phased approach to reopening is, for now, helping bridge the partisan divide. In Birmingham, the state’s largest city, Mayor Randall L. Woodfin (D) has long nursed fears that the Republican governor would base her coronavirus decisions on the words of conservative pundits and politicians, not on scientific data.
A misstep would hit his city harder than other areas: 20 percent of Birmingham residents are over age 60; many have preexisting illnesses such as heart disease or diabetes, which are exacerbated by covid-19.
But as the state tiptoes into reopening instead of sprinting, Woodfin had an unexpected emotion: pleasant surprise.
“I think a lot of people were expected she was going to do more, and I think a lot of people now are shocked she did not go as far as the governor of Georgia,” Woodfin said of Ivey, noting that she has kept in constant contact with the mayors of the state’s largest cities.
“She’s not in isolation making political decisions,” he said, “and I think she has taken a collaborative approach and she is listening to other people, including health experts.”
Lori Rozsa in Royal Palm Beach, Fla., contributed to this report.