HomeAs Businesses Resurface After State Shutdowns, So Does DivisivenessBusinessAs Businesses Resurface After State Shutdowns, So Does Divisiveness

As Businesses Resurface After State Shutdowns, So Does Divisiveness


CHICAGO — Texas lifted stay-at-home orders for its 29 million residents. Hair salons in Maine welcomed customers back inside. In Alabama, clothing boutiques flung open their doors.

Nearly a dozen states tentatively returned to public life on Friday, the first mass reopening of businesses since the coronavirus pandemic brought America to a standstill six weeks ago. But there were clashes across the country over how, when and even whether it should be done.

Partisan battles flared in Illinois and Michigan, where protesters demanded that Democratic leaders loosen restrictions. The skirmishes there and elsewhere revealed political dividing lines and geographical differences, but also something more basic — a vast and widely varying range of personal views about what the country should do.

In tiny Grants, N.M., the renegade mayor defied the governor’s order to keep businesses closed amid the threat of the virus. “It’s already here and it’s going to spread no matter what,” Mayor Martin Hicks said. “It’s going to take its course like all viruses do. Why do we freak out over this?”

The lifting of stringent rules marked a significant new phase in the country’s response to the coronavirus, and came even as confirmed virus cases nationally continue to grow. While the growth rate of the virus has slowed in places like New York and California, new outbreaks are intensifying in Massachusetts, Nebraska and Wisconsin, among other states.

Much is at stake in the reopenings, experts say.

“It’s clearly a life-or-death-sort-of-level decision,” said Dr. Larry Chang, an infectious-diseases specialist at Johns Hopkins University. “If you get this wrong, many more people will die. It’s as simple as that.”

After a period in which nine in 10 residents in the United States were told to stay at home, several of those orders expired on Thursday, paving the way for certain businesses and public spaces to reopen, including in Alabama, Idaho, Maine and Tennessee.

“We’ve been cleaning and sanitizing that store for a week now,” Mary-Lacey Zeiders said, of her women’s clothing shop in Mobile, Ala., which has been open since 1955. “We cannot let this business die,” she said.

On Friday, as the doors were opened, stickers had been placed six feet apart on the pavement outside the boutique. A handwashing station had been set up just inside the door. Every dressing room had been closed but one, and a single employee was assigned to sanitize it after every customer.

Several other states, including Florida, have announced openings starting on Monday.

If the movement to reopen America began with a trickle last week, when Georgia and other states drew condemnation for moving too quickly, the latest developments seemed to represent an opening of the floodgates. By next week, nearly half of the states will have begun reopening their economies in some significant way. At the same time, portions of the country, including much of the West Coast and the Northeast, remain shuttered.

Almost universally, businesses are reopening under restrictions, with instructions to operate restaurants with fewer customers or to enforce rules requiring masks and social distancing. Many states have opened in phases, allowing an industry or certain regions to get back to business, while keeping others closed.

But just as America closed down in a piecemeal, chaotic fashion in March, it began to reopen in a similar spirit: accompanied by tensions between urban and rural areas and apprehensions from business owners and the public.

In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, moved early in the crisis to aggressively expand social distancing, ramp up testing and draw on disease modeling by national defense scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories, both of which are in New Mexico. But that left her at odds with Mr. Hicks, the Grants mayor and a registered Democrat, who dismissed fears that reopening the town could cause the virus to spread further.

Late this week, New Mexico’s Supreme Court sided with the state’s attorney general, ruling that Mr. Hicks must obey the limitations the state has set to address the virus.

In rural communities in states like California, where stay-at-home orders remain in place, and North Dakota, which reopened many businesses on Friday, residents made a common argument: Why should they be held to the same rules as people in densely populated cities?

Modoc County, in the northeastern corner of California, has defied Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders by allowing nonessential businesses to stay open.

The county covers an area twice the size of Delaware and has a population of 8,841, according to the latest census estimate. (It has five times as many cattle as people.) It has tested 80 people over the past two months for the coronavirus and all tests that came back were negative. Three results are pending.

“We have a barbershop with one chair and some salons that have two chairs,” said Heather Hadwick, the county’s deputy director of emergency services. “Our biggest restaurant has 15 tables.”

Some churches have gone ahead with services, but they have congregations of around 15 people, she said. Older residents are still being encouraged to stay home.

“We don’t have crowds,” Ms. Hadwick said. “We are on a different level of rural.”

During the week of stay-at-home orders, the fight over those restrictions has prompted a raft of lawsuits nationwide.

Whether members of a California mariachi band or a Michigan jewelry store owner or the head of a gym chain in Virginia, they have all gone to court to argue that closing their businesses or fining them over such orders is an infringement on their constitutional rights.

“The litigation is coming out of the woodwork,” said James Hodge, the director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University.

Still, the prospect of reopening has been complex. In Iowa, where some restrictions on businesses were lifted on Friday, some people said they were uncomfortable with certain regions of the state reopening while others had not.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, loosened restrictions in 77 counties, allowing gyms, restaurants and retail stores to reopen. The state’s most populous areas and counties that have been hot spots for the outbreak, though, remain closed.

In Davenport, one of the cities still under tight restrictions, Glory Smith worried that the reopening was coming too soon and questioned the logic of letting some counties reopen. The virus would not respect county boundaries, she said.

“It is like having a smoking section on a plane or in a restaurant,” she said. “It doesn’t work.”

Others relished a return to their pre-pandemic routines of shopping, drinking beer in restaurants and just being out in the world. In Clinton, Iowa — 40 miles from Davenport — Stout’s Irish Pub and Grill was full by early afternoon on Friday. Its booths were packed with people as music played. Only one restriction was apparent: A sign on the door stated that if you had a fever or were sick, you should not enter.

In newly reopened Texas, Janet Leone strolled through the gleaming, brightly lit levels of the Galleria mall in Houston not long after it opened for the first time in weeks. Few shoppers were there, and many of the stores, including Neiman Marcus, were closed. Ms. Leone wore a white face mask, and some of her fellow shoppers did, too, but many others were unmasked.

“It feels pretty safe — nobody’s here,” said Ms. Leone, a speech pathologist, adding that she did not mind that many of the shops were closed. “It was more about just getting out of the house and walking around.”

On the Gulf Coast of Alabama, residents said they felt compelled to open businesses and prepare for the busy summer tourist season.

Roads that were empty several weeks ago were filling with traffic by Friday. Metal barriers and white signs with red lettering that said “BEACHES CLOSED” were pushed to the side, allowing cars to park and foot traffic to move through.

“We live here,” said Robert Craft, the mayor of Gulf Shores, Ala. “We have very few chain restaurants. The locals own their own businesses. When they go, everything will end up going with it.”

But with the number of cases continuing to rise in many states — known deaths from the virus surpassed 63,000 in the United States this week — public health experts have warned that reopening too soon could lead to a devastating second wave.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the federal government’s top expert on infectious diseases, expressed concern about some states “leapfrogging” federal guidelines, which recommend that states should not begin reopening until they saw a downward trend in cases over 14 days. In some states that have reopened, reports of new cases have increased or have mostly stayed the same in recent days, according to a New York Times tally of cases.

Speaking on CNN on Thursday night, Dr. Fauci predicted a wave of new cases in states that reopen too soon, and outbreaks in high-risk settings like nursing homes, prisons and production plants.

While he said discretion was given to governors, some were “taking a bit of a chance,” Dr. Fauci said. “I hope they can actually handle any rebound that they see.”

Several governors who have put in place stay-at-home orders and closed businesses said it was far too early to consider easing up on the rules — even as they faced off against protesters.

A day after a boisterous rally that sent dozens of people, some of them armed, into Michigan’s Capitol to protest strict statewide stay-at-home orders, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lifted some restrictions to allow some real estate as well as construction work and outdoor work to resume on May 7, but said she could not “flip the switch and get back to normal.”

“It’s going to be one step at a time, in increments,” said Ms. Whitmer, a Democrat, of her decisions on reopening the state’s economy.

In Oregon, which has reported some of the fewest cases per capita in the country, Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, said on Friday that the state still had extensive work ahead to control the virus.

While she said some parts of the state were seeing few cases and hospitalizations, she said she was not ready for a broad lifting of distancing mandates. “This process will happen much more slowly than any of us would like,” Ms. Brown said.

Julie Bosman reported from Chicago, and Sarah Mervosh from Canton, Ohio. Reporting was contributed by Mike Baker in Seattle; John Eligon in Kansas City, Mo.; Manny Fernandez in Houston; Thomas Fuller in San Francisco; Ben Grenaway in Salt Lake City; Neil MacFarquhar in New York; John Peragine in Clinton, Iowa; Rick Rojas in Atlanta; Simon Romero in Albuquerque; Dionne Searcey in Fleischmanns, N.Y., and Kalyn Wolfe in Gulf Shores, Ala.



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