The South Leads the Push to Reopen the Economy

How Governors Taking the Gamble are Betting the Lives of the Working Class

Azusa Lippit, Around School Editor

On April 24th, 2020, after five weeks of statewide lockdown, tattoo parlors, nail salons, and other select businesses in Georgia were permitted to reopen by Governor Brian Kemp (R). Governor Bill Lee (R) of Tennessee allowed restaurants to open at 50% capacity on April 27th, and retailers to open on the 29th. Certain beaches in Florida were opened as early as May 17th by Governor Ron DeSantis (R). DeSantis has boasted low numbers of infection comparative to the state’s overall population, a convenient statistic after an utter lack of adequate testing, on which it would be irrational to base further decisions.

Reopening a state without a clear procedure for testing and contact tracing is irresponsible, and could easily lead to many worse repercussions than the current decline of the economy. Health officials are under extreme pressure even in states where the economy has come to a complete halt, and restarting commerce would only add to that pressure. Additionally, one state must go through careful conference with its surrounding states before making any decisions- without the prohibition of domestic travel in the United States, even partially opening one state would endanger those at its borders. Furthermore, opening counties in shifts or with a small number of businesses at a time is difficult to enforce; the more people who feel the need to reopen their stores and services, the more customers will be leaving their houses, allowing for the spread of the virus. 

When businesses such as tattoo parlors and nail salons (the ones recently opened in Georgia) are declared allowed to open, it puts employees in the position of being unable to collect unemployment benefits and having to decide between jeopardizing the health of themselves and their family and obtaining an income. If the state is prohibiting the operation of such businesses, employees can safely collect their unemployment benefits from their homes, as they are not expected to be working. One salary in a household without health insurance could be the difference between paid and unpaid hospital bills. Thus, the working class becomes a target. Affluent residents of states like Florida and Georgia may feel at ease remaining at home to protect themselves or a family member at risk, but those without financial stability will be forced into a dangerous environment. 

While the virus has exposed inequality in healthcare access, particularly towards minority groups, this reopening perpetuates systematic oppression demonstrated by governors including Kemp, Lee, and DeSantis in leaving a largely minority impoverished population to fend for themselves. In the South particularly, rates are higher for poverty, uninsured residents, overall chronic conditions, and even natural disasters than that of other regions. With an even lower average minimum wage than the rest of the US, the factors making southern residents more vulnerable seem to pile on. In Louisiana, where the number of deaths has surpassed that from Hurricane Katrina, there is a clear higher rate of exposure and death for African American citizens. Furthermore, Louisiana has chosen not to open its businesses, leaving it at risk to its neighboring state of Georgia. 

The United States is unique to many other countries struck by the pandemic in that it was infected relatively late, and had countries such as China and Italy to look to as a model for handling the emergency. However, there was still a lack of urgency in the US’s response time, and since then, the country has not gotten to a place where it would be acceptable to discuss reopening. In New Zealand, for example, mandatory quarantine for all visitors to the country had been instituted by March 15th, a somewhat radical decision compared to other countries’ responses. The first case reported in New Zealand occurred more than one month after the first confirmed US case. 

New Zealand’s prime minister recently announced the beginning of the country’s transition back to daily life without restrictions, having already loosened the lockdown order in the country. The southern states proposing reopening, however, are not in the same position to do so. Florida currently has the eighth most reported deaths in the country, yet beaches are already starting to reopen. 

Throughout this chaotic period, with mixed messages coming from the government and the media, accurate information must be diligently sought. A lack of federal composure has left governors to determine the gravity with which safety measures should be handled. Southern states such as Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida should not have been the first states to announce reopening, as it prioritizes a currently slow-moving economy over the lives of people at risk—who are in considerably higher numbers in southern states, regardless. Observing the way that the spread of COVID-19 is handled may be an opportunity to learn about how to vote for public officials. Regardless of party and background, however, governors should not put their citizens in danger by rashly reopening their economies.