Georgia rushes, NY cautious as US states set varied pace on easing virus restrictions

Even as the US death toll from Covid-19 exceeded 56,000, according to the latest figures Monday night, governors in a number of states began lifting lockdown restrictions, against warnings from public health experts, as US jobless figures hit record highs.

A staff member holding balloons at a Waffle House in Madison, Georgia, USA on April 27, 2020.
A staff member holding balloons at a Waffle House in Madison, Georgia, USA on April 27, 2020. REUTERS - MARANIE STAAB

Georgia, at the vanguard of states testing the safety of reopening the economy amid mounting coronavirus death tolls, permitted restaurant dining for the first time in a month on Monday while governors in regions with fewer cases also eased restrictions.

Eager to revive battered commerce despite warnings from public health experts about the lack of testing, a handful of states from Montana to Mississippi were also set to reopen some workplaces deemed to be nonessential.

Alaska, Oklahoma and South Carolina, along with Georgia, previously took such steps, after weeks of mandatory lockdowns that have thrown millions of Americans out of work and led to forecasts that an economic shock of historic proportions is at hand.

Reporting from Washington DC, FRANCE 24’s Kethevane Gorjestani said the easing had been “very gradual, some states are taking bigger steps than others”, she noted, with some states “opening beaches and parks where you would think it is possible to keep social distancing. But other states like Tennessee for example are taking bigger steps like opening things like retails stores even though those things are lifted to about a 50 percent capacity. Restaurants have to follow strict social distancing guidelines, so really people are trying to figure out how to reopen safely in those states,” she explained.

With nearly a third of the world’s Covid-19 cases and more than 56,000 of the 210,000 global death rate, the US is by far the country most affected by the coronavirus pandemic. On Monday, the 24-hour death toll rose by 1,303, according to the John Hopkins University toll tracker.

There are, however, wide regional disparities between rural areas that are largely unaffected and, for example, the New York region, the epicentre of the crisis. State governors and local authorities are each tackling the lockdown restrictions and exits at their own pace, measured against the imperative to restart an economy battered by the crisis.

At a White House press briefing Monday, President Donald Trump encouraged governors to ease the restrictions “as quickly as possible -- but safely”, he added. “We want everyone to be safe. And I think you’re seeing that. You’re seeing a lot of governors get out and they want to open it up.”

Georgia racing to open for business

Georgia has been at the vanguard of states testing the safety of reopening with Trump and some local officials criticising Governor Brian Kemp for forging ahead to add restaurants and movie theatres to the list of businesses -- hair and nail salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors -- that he allowed to reopen last week, albeit with social-distancing restrictions still in force.

No companies are required to reopen, and it remained to be seen how many merchants would choose to return to business and how many customers would show up if they do.

Some owners and managers of eateries in Atlanta, the state's largest city and capital, were less than enthusiastic.

"It's not safe," said Brian Maloof, owner of Manuel's Tavern, a fixture for more than 60 years. "I don't know when we'll open, but I'm afraid it won't be anytime soon."

But Moe's Original BBQ by the Georgia Tech campus hung an open sign on the door for the first time in a month.

"I don't know if this is a big step to normal, but at least it's something," owner Brian Mancuso said of his trickle of lunch customers.

‘We have to be smart,’ says NY's Cuomo 

In the hardest-hit states of New York and New Jersey, part of a metropolitan region of about 32 million people, governors signaled that even limited restarting of business activities was at least weeks away.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he was preparing to lengthen confinement measures for badly-hit areas.

"May 15 is when the pause regulations expire statewide. I will extend them in many parts of the state," he told reporters.

New York is America's worst-hit state, with more than 17,300 Covid-19 deaths out of almost 292,000 confirmed infections. Almost 56,000 people have died across the country.

Cuomo plans to allow manufacturing and construction to restart in some of the state's least-affected areas after May 15 as part of a phased reopening.

But for now that seems about it for New York, which has been shut down since mid-March.

"We have to be smart because if you are not smart, you will see that infection rate go right back to where it was. (We) will be right back to where we were 58 days ago and nobody wants that," he said.

Cuomo said cases were not falling as quickly as he would like, with more than 1,000 new hospitalizations and 337 deaths from the disease in the past 24 hours.

The most affected part of the state, New York City, is likely to be one of the last areas of the country to reopen. A poll out Monday showed residents overwhelmingly backed the shutdown.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that at least 40 miles of streets would close to traffic to give the city's 8.6 million residents more space to exercise outdoors, in a further sign that the end is far from in sight.

Also Monday, New York's elections board canceled the Democratic Party primary on June 23, citing the risk of spreading coronavirus, a move heavily criticized by leftist Bernie Sanders.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)


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