“South Carolina’s business is business,” he declared this week as he lifted restrictions, with careful guidelines, on department stores, florists, music shops and some other businesses that previously had been inconsistently deemed “nonessential.”
At the same briefing, the state’s chief epidemiologist, Dr. Linda Bell, seconded the importance of economic recovery but quickly inserted a note of caution: “The risk of exposure remains for everyone.”
It is a scenario playing out across the country as governors wrestle with weeks of quarantine-fueled job losses and soaring unemployment claims, while warnings from single-issue focused public health officials say lifting stay-at-home orders now could spark a resurgence of COVID-19..
Meanwhile, groups of protesters across several states have staged loud demonstrations in favor of rescinding quarantine orders.
The dire hit to the economy is clear: Jobless numbers released Thursday show Depression-era levels of unemployment, with 1 in 6 American workers losing their job amid the pandemic. In South Carolina, more than 14% of the labor force has claimed to be out of work due to the outbreak.
The difference in how governors are responding to that reality depends largely on their political party, with a handful of Republican leaders moving forward, while most Democratic governors have slammed on the brakes.
McMaster and other Republicans, most notably Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, have pushed forward in accordance with President Donald Trump’s ongoing call to reopen the U.S. economy.
Late last week, Trump used Twitter to urge his supporters to “liberate” three states led by Democratic governors.
Kemp and McMaster said they trust people in their states to take the necessary precautions to stay safe and not further the spread of the virus.
“I am confident that business owners who decide to reopen will adhere to minimum basic operations, which prioritize the health and well-being of employees and customers,” Kemp wrote in a tweet Wednesday night.
In defending his decision, Kemp also has cited his state’s efforts to ramp up testing and tracing of the virus. McMaster has alluded to starting up contact tracing efforts at some point, but has not elaborated.
In Oklahoma, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said his decision to reopen barbershops, hair salons, spas and pet groomers as early as Friday is in line with the phased-in approach recommended by the White House and is supported by data showing hospitalizations in the state have gone down. But the decision was criticized as “hasty” by the Oklahoma State Medical Association.
“Even without widespread testing, Oklahoma has seen an ongoing growth in the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the past week alone,” Dr. George Monks, the association’s president, said in a statement. “According to the Trump administration, states should not begin this process until they’ve seen a two-week downward trajectory in COVID-19 cases, and we are far from this point.”
In Tennessee, public health officials have defended Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s plan to reopen most businesses by May 1, citing a downward trajectory in the growth rate of positive cases.
The governors’ actions stand in stark contrast to the decidedly more cautious approach of their Democratic counterparts in California, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Virginia and Washington, who say they will base their decisions on reopening the economy primarily on public health data and their ability to keep the virus outbreak in check.
“This is going to move slower than any of us would want, but it is the only way to protect the health and lives of Oregonians,” said Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.
Jay Inslee, governor of Washington, one of the first states to report confirmed cases of the virus in January, said any return to public life will happen in small steps and only after the state has met federal benchmarks, including adequate testing and a vaccine.
“To turn back on this successful temporary approach now would be disastrous,” he said this week.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has framed his decision-making process on lifting restrictions as a “health-first” approach.
He recently allowed scheduled surgeries to resume, but has warned the state’s nearly 40 million residents that, while he understands the desire to get back to work and reclaim a sense of normalcy, lifting the orders too soon would be a public health mistake.
“This phase is one where science, public health — not politics — must be the guide, where we must be open to argument, interested in evidence, where we cannot be ideological in any way shape or form,” Newsom said.
McMaster, one of the last to implement stay-at-home orders and now one of the first to begin opening his state back up, says he has no desire to endanger residents. But he says it’s imperative that people go back to work. He has said the federal government’s guidelines are recommendations, not requirements.
“Our goal is to save lives, but also to save jobs and to save families and save the futures that are depending on these businesses that are so heavily hit and impacted,” he said.
Adapted from reporting by Associated Press.