Traffic was heavy in this suburb of Jackson, Miss., on Friday as residents perused department stores and auto dealerships, joined friends dining on the patios of restaurants and dropped children at day-care centers to romp on playgrounds.
“If we’re going to do something, we should do it now to stop the expansion of the virus,” said Ethan Williams, 23, a salesman eating with a friend during their lunch break at Basil’s Cafe at the Renaissance at Colony Park mall here.
In Texas, bars and restaurants have been blocked from serving customers on site. In Louisiana, the deadly coronavirus is spreading, by some measures, faster than anywhere else in the world. In Alabama, nonessential businesses — including nightclubs, gyms and barbershops — were closed on Friday.
But in Mississippi — where the pandemic has infected 579 people and killed eight — Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, has refused to close businesses in the state of nearly 3 million, let alone order residents to stay home, as the Democratic governors in Louisiana and New York did last week.
“It’s very popular nationally to talk about these shelter-in-place orders," Reeves said in an interview Friday. "Where we find ourselves in the cycle compared to where New York City finds itself are very different. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for Mississippi.”
Reeves said that when he spoke by phone with President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and federal coronavirus experts on Thursday, no one advised him that a stay-at-home order was necessary.
Despite outbreaks around Tupelo, Hattiesburg and the state capital, Jackson, Reeves issued an order Tuesday defining many businesses as essential — including department stores and restaurants, which can still serve 10 people at a time.
Reeves spent Friday visiting National Guard facilities in the southern cities of Gulfport and Hattiesburg, where 1,000 beds may be created for coronavirus patients who need to be isolated, he said. He was dismayed to hear people were still out shopping and eating.
"People should not be going out to malls," Reeves said. "People need to stay home."
Though Reeves has been slow to close businesses, he was quick to try to shut down the state’s sole remaining abortion clinic in Jackson, including abortion among elective procedures suspended during the outbreak after Texas and Ohio governors took similar steps.
"The abortion clinic should shut down. By them not shutting down, they’re showing what bad actors they are,” Reeves said Friday. “We’re looking at every avenue as a state we have to fix that.”
In a Facebook livestream Thursday, several Mississippians condemned Reeves’ refusal to close businesses and order residents to stay home. Some started a campaign on Twitter, #ShutDownMississippi.
“The numbers of positive cases will continue until you DO YOUR JOB and shut everything down!!!” wrote one resident, Marienka Hegedus Solis of Oxford.
Many on the state’s Gulf Coast worried the virus would spread there as people evacuated from New Orleans.
“New Orleans is a 45-minute drive from here and it is predicted to be the next epicenter,” warned John Thomas of Biloxi.
“Mandate a stay-at-home policy. Our coastal counties are being flooded with out-of-state residents that have a home over here,” said Pam Scott of Bay St. Louis, who works in a coastal casino. “Stand up and take the action that your people are asking you to do. You’re gambling with Mississippians' lives.”
Amanda Jenkins Ausborn of Tupelo pleaded with the governor to at least close factories in the northern part of the state, where employees aren't able to do their jobs from home.
“People are being made to work and being let go if they don’t show up!” she wrote.
But others appreciate being able to shop — and work.
“People are going to make their own decisions,” said Jackson Wood, 24, a business developer lunching with Williams at the Ridgeland mall.
About 30% of his colleagues are still coming to work, he said. When his gym closed because of COVID-19, he joined another that stayed open.
At nearby Northpark Mall, workers were staffing stores such as Dillard’s on Friday, and at least a dozen shoppers showed up when the doors opened.
Michael Jackson, 27, arrived in a mask and rubber gloves, hand sanitizer tucked in his pocket “as a precaution.” He said he had recently gotten his tax refund, and that "nothing’s going to keep people in.”
His fiancee, Monica Cosby, 25, brought her 1-year-old nephew, Jayden, who didn’t want to wear a surgical mask. She eventually gave up.
Cosby works as a clerk at a convenience store, reduced to three days a week because of the pandemic.
“How else are we going to support ourselves?” she said. “There’s people who do need the money.”
Marc Scott, 57, an anesthesia technician who came to pay a bill at Zales, said he appreciated the governor’s concern for the economy.
“I’m glad he’s not shutting it down,” Scott said, noting that the mall was fairly empty anyway. “People have taken heed of the warnings.”
Some Mississippi mayors have imposed curfews and forced restaurants to stop dine-in service, but even they were hesitant to restrict some gatherings, such as church services. The governor has clarified his order to say that local restrictions take priority.
In Jackson, the state’s capital and largest city with a population of about 170,000, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba limited gatherings to 10 people, closed dine-in restaurants and city offices, but hasn’t shut down funerals. The first COVID-19 testing site opened a week ago at the local fairgrounds, and Lumumba expects many patients from across the state to seek treatment at area hospitals.
“We are but a few days and a few cases short of it being a horrible health crisis in our cities,” Lumumba said Thursday after a conference call with John Hopkins University experts and mayors across the country.
“The governor has to take charge of the situation,” Lumumba said.
He called state testing “woefully insignificant” and the situation dire.
"We have communities adjacent to us who through all of this have not implemented any restrictions,” he said. "We can’t leave cities to their own devices and have 20 different plans that may or may not be effective.”