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Mississippi and Iowa join the ranks of states reopening nonessential businesses

Although coronavirus cases haven’t peaked yet, 16 states are reopening their economies in the coming week.

Reeves, wearing a grey suit, white shirt, and no tie, gazes at the camera sternly, his face very red.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves at a news conference in Jackson, Mississippi, on April 21.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Two more states have announced plans to loosen restrictions meant to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, even as experts warn that diagnostic testing must dramatically increase before the country can safely reopen.

Friday, Iowa and Mississippi joined more than a dozen other states who have said they will reopen some nonessential businesses in the coming week. The governors of both states, however, said many restrictions aimed at reducing social interaction will remain in place.

In Iowa, where there are nearly 4,500 confirmed Covid-19 cases as of April 25, farmers markets will reopen Monday, and Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) has signaled she will consider reopening other businesses, according to reporting by the Des Moines Register. Hospitals will also be able to perform nonessential surgeries, reversing a ban that took effect in late March in effort to conserve medical equipment.

In Mississippi, which has more than 5,400 confirmed Covid-19 cases as of April 25, Gov. Tate Reeves (R) transitioned his state’s “stay-at-home” order to what he calls a “safer-at-home” order. The new order is expected to be in effect for two weeks, beginning Monday. It allows many businesses to reopen, encourages customers to follow social distancing guidelines, and instructs Mississippians to stay home “as much as you possibly can” and limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people.

They join states like Florida, where beaches and parks have reopened; Minnesota, where some sport and recreation shops have reopened; South Carolina and Georgia, which will allow their “stay-at-home” orders to expire almost completely; and Tennessee, where restaurants will be permitted to reestablish their dine-in service on Monday and where retail stores may reopen on Wednesday — as long as dining room and retail space capacity doesn’t exceed half of their maximums.

Both Iowa and Mississippi have taken steps to avoid some of the criticisms other states beginning to reopen have faced. For example, Georgia’s reopening plan allows for businesses like hair salons and tattoo parlors to serve customers — Mississippi’s order does not. And in Iowa, hospitals performing nonessential procedures will have to maintain a certain number of ICU beds for coronavirus patients.

But epidemiologists have cautioned that such measures are not enough, and that much more is required before reopening any businesses at all will be safe, including ensuring states are able to substantially increase testing capacity and better equip hospitals.

Experts warn a lack of testing could undermine reopening efforts

States and the federal government have struggled to balance the public health risk posed by novel coronavirus — which is more contagious, deadlier, and lasts longer on surfaces than the flu — with the severe economic cost of shutting down public life.

Since March, more than 26 million Americans have applied for unemployment benefits. More than half of low-income Americans have reported that someone in their household lost work because of coronavirus, and that they will therefore struggle to pay bills this month.

But while reopening portions of the economy immediately might seem as if it would help those struggling with bills and unemployment, experts argue doing so risks achieving the worst of both worlds: failing to avoid an economic recession while also causing a new spike in coronavirus cases and deaths.

Steps have been outlined — by the White House’s public health officials and other experts — that could allow the economy to be restarted safely. But experts say the US is far from ready to take them.

These steps include establishing a robust system for contact tracing — which identifies all people an infected person comes into contact with — and regular diagnostic testing. In particular, epidemiologists have called for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of daily tests, repeated on people over time, to properly understand the scope of the disease’s spread as people begin to reengage with normal life.

Reopening would also require ensuring sufficient protections for health care workers, who have faced significant equipment shortages and risk becoming overwhelmed if there is a spike in new cases.

There are also questions as to whether people are willing to patronize newly reopened businesses, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias has written:

Americans fear spreading or contracting infection, so much so that they’ve overwhelmingly participated in social distancing measures. They tell pollsters by wide margins that they fear lifting those restrictions too soon much more so than too late. They’re willing to stay put even if it harms the economy.

They also fear economic hardship. That’s led prudent people, even those left relatively unharmed by the downturn so far, to delay nonessential purchases, like new cars, appliances, clothes, and other goods.

Whatever choices state officials make about opening things up, there’s not going to be a vibrant economy until real steps are taken to address those dual sources of fear.

This lack of testing and uncertainty about people’s economic appetites means states reopening nonessential businesses are more or less engaging in an experiment in the midst of an unchecked viral outbreak, former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Jeffrey Koplan said last week.

“There’s talk of [new cases] tapering off into a plateau and talk of it looking better than the models, but it feels very premature,” Koplan said of declining case counts. “This is no time for this kind of experimentation.”