As virus takes hold, resistance to stay-at-home orders remains widespread
Gov. Kay Ivey, the Republican governor of Alabama, put down a marker last week in affirming that it was "not the time to order people to shelter in place."
"Y'all, we are not Louisiana, we are not New York state, we are not California," she said, suggesting that the fate of hard-hit parts of the country would not be shared by Alabama.
In Missouri, Republican Gov. Mike Parson said he was not inclined to "make a blanket policy," adding, "It's going to come down to individual responsibilities."
And in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order this week under growing pressure as his state's death toll mounted, a Tampa-area megachurch pastor who was arrested for holding services in violation of a local order announced Thursday he was considering reopening the church in time for Easter and is "praying and seeking the Lord for wisdom."
"I will say, however, that the church cannot be closed indefinitely," the Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne wrote on his website. "We believe that there are less restrictive means available to balance all the various interests."
A growing number of states and cities are restricting Americans' movements in response to a fast-spreading pandemic likely to claim hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide. But government and private-sector leaders across a large swath of the country remain defiant that the devastation unfolding in New York and other seemingly faraway cities should not curtail life in their own communities.
In some cases, skeptics have been slow to acknowledge the science behind the spread of the novel virus. In others, such as Florida, politicians took heed of demands from the business community, which lobbied DeSantis as recently as a Monday webinar to balance medical imperatives with economic needs. Elsewhere, adamance about local autonomy was pronounced. Some, meanwhile, maintained that it was religious authority that mattered.
"While we do not know for certain what the future holds, or how long this disruption will last, we can all rest in knowing that God is in control," the conservative Christian founder and chief executive of the craft store Hobby Lobby, which opened stores in a handful of places against state orders, wrote in a letter to his employees.
Experts are now warning that a group of governors in the South and the Great Plains - largely Republican-led states - risk acting too late.
Alabama, for example, has more than 1,100 cases, with just five counties untouched by the virus. New infections have risen as sharply as in California.
In some cases, the resistance has led to rising political tensions, with often Democratic mayors imposing orders of their own that they acknowledge can only be so effective when surrounding jurisdictions do not act.
"As a city, we need to operate as if we could be anyone else," said Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor Randall Woodfin. "I think we're in the middle of a storm."
Lyda Krewson, the mayor of St. Louis, said her city's stay-at-home order was undermined by the absence of a blanket policy, warning, "We have a fluid society, frankly."
"I feel like the entire country ought to be under a stay-at-home order," Krewson said in an interview.
The pleas have not been from politicians alone. Joining Krewson and others in appealing to the Missouri governor was the state's medical association, which sent a letter to Parson saying a statewide order was the "only way to curb the exponential spread of covid-19 in Missouri." In Texas, the state's hospital and nurses associations sent a joint letter to the Republican governor, Greg Abbott, telling him, "The time has come for Texas to issue a statewide stay-at-home order." Abbott announced a new statewide directive on Tuesday but refused to call it a stay-at-home order.
Current and former emergency management officials said the delay would cost lives.
"Part of the problem is just reluctance to wrap your head around the fact that the numbers could get that bad that fast," said Craig Fugate, a former FEMA administrator.
He singled out the South, saying, "It's almost a different approach, waiting to know it's bad. I'm afraid that by the time they have reports of cases, it's already too late."
A federal official involved in emergency management in a group of states across the Southeast echoed that assessment.
"We needed to be where we are now three weeks ago," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the response effort. "It's like Hurricane Katrina is hitting all 50 states at the same time."
Effective planning has been thwarted by the multiple models available to state officials, who choose to rely on certain numbers and not others, the official said, based on a "political decision that is out of the hands of the responders."
The series of new orders announced this week leave about a dozen states without sweeping restrictions limiting travel to essential needs.
Interviews with mayors, business leaders and health officials in states where stay-at-home orders were recently imposed illustrated how decisive Tuesday's White House briefing was to their thinking, as Trump struck a newly solemn tone and his advisers unveiled grim projections even with best-case mitigation efforts.
DeSantis acknowledged as much in remarks on Wednesday, saying of his statewide order, "I did speak with the president about it."
The industries exempted from his order, including landscaping and boating in addition to food service and others, resembled the catalogue of essential services requested by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which sent a letter to DeSantis outlining its view of an appropriate government response on March 22. While slowing the outbreak was the "foremost priority," wrote the Chamber's president and chief executive, Mark Wilson, "we must be mindful that the policies intended to protect human health and curb the pandemic do not also cause an even worse effect on the economy and jobs."
Florida's neighbor to the north also changed course on Wednesday.
"At this point, I think it's the right thing to do," said Brian Kemp, Georgia's Republican governor, who had resisted a statewide order, and whose top aide had taken to Facebook over the weekend to accuse local officials of "overreach" for directing residents to stay at home.
Kemp said he learned Tuesday that the virus was "transmitting before people see signs."
For weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others have been warning about the disease's spread in the absence of symptoms.
Meanwhile, Gracia Szczech, the regional FEMA administrator based in Atlanta, alerted staff in an email Monday of an employee's positive test - the third in the Atlanta office, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details. FEMA didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cody Hall, a spokesman for Kemp, said updated CDC guidance, in addition to new modeling and projections about hospital capacity, shifted the governor's thinking.
Tom Wolf, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, also issued a statewide order on Wednesday, calling it the "most prudent option" as the number of cases in his state surpassed 5,000.
After initially barring local jurisdictions from ordering residents to stay at home, Arizona's governor, Republican Doug Ducey, this week reversed himself and issued a statewide order.
But Will Humble, a former director of the state's health department, said it was unenforceable.
"It says it's a stay-at-home order, but try to find something that's not exempted that wasn't already closed," he said.
Aides to the governor and state's health director didn't respond to requests for comment. Governor's offices in Missouri and Oklahoma also didn't respond to requests for comment.
A spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Public Health, Arrol Sheehan, said the state "continues to review situations in other states, follow our plans, update our plans, coordinate with health-care and community partners and advise our citizens regarding the measures we can take to reduce the spread of this virus."
Within states that have issued sweeping directives, there has also been defiance from businesses, as well as religious leaders and vacationers.
The decision by Hobby Lobby to reopen stores in multiple states that had ordered nonessential businesses closed prompted state law-enforcement officials to send cease-and-desist letters to the company, which is based in Oklahoma City. Hobby Lobby is known for its successful challenge to a component of the Affordable Care Act requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception.
Two employees of the chain, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are still employed by a store, provided images of signs in Hobby Lobby store windows in Ohio and Massachusetts claiming that the business was "operating as essential" because it was offering "PPE mask supplies" and "various components for at-home small businesses."
Hobby Lobby's corporate office didn't respond to a request for comment.
There were other, more recreational reasons for rule-breaking, including spring-break excursions.
Dan Gelber, the mayor of Miami Beach, said macabre scenes out of New York helped his constituents understand the need for strict measures, including the stay-at-home order issued for his city more than a week ago.
"It would have made sense to start substantial social distancing in early March," the mayor said. "But there was no messaging for that. And no one saw the threat it became literally days later."
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