As late as Tuesday,Gov. Tate Reeves and Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer, were saying that ordering people to stay at home statewide was not necessary. In dealing with the spreading coronavirus, they said that they wanted to take a targeted approach — rather than a blanket one — in deciding what parts of the state needed the greatest restrictions on their daily life.
By Wednesday, they gave up on that, and Reeves signed a “shelter at home” order that applies statewide and goes into effect at 5 p.m. Friday.
What changed in those 24 hours beyond that Mississippi added 133 cases and two deaths? Dobbs cited infections rising in nursing homes, but those were already walled off. What reached a critical point was not the coronavirus itself but the pressure on Reeves from many parts of the state, from within the medical community and from within his own Republican Party to get tougher, as now 37 states have done.
Does Wednesday’s order do that? Yes and no. It makes clear that he is no longer just urging people to avoid social gatherings of 10 or more. He’s forbidding them.
According to Reeves, there have been problems with weddings and funerals going on like normal, as well as outdoor gatherings of groups of people who have lots of time on their hands since their workplaces have sent them home.
The governor’s order also says if a business is not on the “essential” list, it’s got to all but close its doors. It bans most recreation outlets, both indoors and outdoors. It clarifies that the exemption for health-care operations does not include barbershops, beauty parlors or gyms. Residents can use sidewalks, streets and walking trails for exercise, but that’s about it.
What Reeves didn’t do — still wisely for now — is pare down the relatively long list of businesses unrelated to health care that are also exempt from these restrictions: big employers, such as farming, manufacturing and construction, and providers of the essential goods and services on which people depend during a crisis, such as grocery stores and the news media.
Reeves and most government leaders in this country have a difficult balancing act. They don’t want to come across as negligent of the dangers of the pandemic or indifferent to the death and suffering it causes. They also have to worry, though, about decimating their economies and wreaking financial havoc on companies, workers and government treasuries. They must listen to the worst-case scenarios of both the scientists and the economists and navigate a path somewhere in between. These are not easy calls.
COVID-19 is going to claim lots of lives in the United States. That was going to be a reality no matter how draconian the lockdowns were. China, the originator of this coronavirus, walled off an entire region of its country and still had more than 3,000 deaths. A severe national and global recession, which now seems inevitable, is not going to be pretty either. Somewhere there must be a middle ground where the human toll — whether from a health crisis or a financial one — can be kept to a level that does not create widespread panic or civil unrest.
The hope is that this 17-day “shelter in place” order will buy enough time so that the number of infected people requiring hospitalization can be effectively managed. That way no one’s life is lost for failure to receive adequate care. Will 17 days be enough? Hard to say. But odds of it will be better if the 10 to 25 percent of the population at whom Reeves says he is targeting his latest order comply with its conditions.