After weeks of rejecting calls for a statewide “shelter-in-place” order, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said the time had come for one on Wednesday afternoon, the same day the state eclipsed 1,000 confirmed novel coronavirus cases.
“This is a somber time—for our country and our state. We are all in grave danger from coast to coast,” Reeves told reporters during a 3:30 p.m. streamed press conference. “As leaders, our top priority is and always will be the safety of our citizens.”
Starting at 5:30 p.m. Friday, the governor is ordering all residents to stay at home except for “essential travel,” which includes errands such as grocery shopping, healthcare-related trips, or to work jobs Reeves deemed “essential” in an earlier executive order. All “non-essential” businesses must also close their doors. The order will last at least until Monday, April 20 at 8 a.m.
“Every day for the last several weeks, I have asked our health experts whether it is time for the ultimate action of a ‘shelter in place’ order statewide. Yesterday, for the first time, we got the answer we had been anticipating,” Reeves said. “They told me we are now at the point in Mississippi’s cycle where such drastic restrictions are required. Today is the day.”
Palazzo: ‘We Are All Facing an Invisible Enemy’
The goal, Reeves said, is to keep the State’s fragile health-care system from becoming overwhelmed, which has already begun happening across the country in cities like New York City and New Orleans. More than 300 Mississippians have been hospitalized for COVID-19 since the Mississippi State Department of Health confirmed its first case on March 11, and at least 22 have died. Statewide, Mississippi only had 824 ICU beds in 2018, and nearly a quarter of all cases are in counties with no ICU beds.
The order “will be enforced” and “taken very, very seriously,” Reeves said Wednesday. Other Mississippi leaders backed the move, including Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann.
“Mississippi is in the throes of a pandemic war. Our friends, our neighbors, and maybe even our own family may be victims if we do not do the right thing now,” Hosemann said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “Thousands of Mississippians may get sick, and some may not survive.”
Congressman Steven Palazzo, a Republican who represents South Mississippi’s 4th Congressional District, which includes the Gulf Coast where Reeves’ order will close the beaches beginning Friday, also supports the shelter-in-place order.
“I am urging all Mississippians to remain at home while Mississippi continues fighting the outbreak of the coronavirus. We are all facing an invisible enemy and must do what we can to fight back, which in this case, means staying at home,” Palazzo said in a statement Wednesday. “Unless a trip is absolutely essential to an individual’s survival, rethink your decision to leave home. Your choice to comply with the shelter-in-place order will save lives.”
Mike Espy, the Democratic candidate who is challenging incumbent Mississippi Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, also praised Reeves’ decision in an afternoon tweet.
“Glad to see the governor issue a stay-at-home order in Mississippi. It is necessary and much needed to flatten the curve,” Espy wrote, referring to the need to slow the growth of COVID-19 cases in order to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed. “This order will help reduce the load being put on our hard-working doctors, nurses, and other health-care professionals as they continue fighting on the front lines.”
Tupelo Mayor Praises Reeves After Recent Criticisms
Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton, who for weeks has harshly criticized Reeves for not putting in place more aggressive statewide restrictions to fight the coronavirus’ spread, thanked the governor in a tweet on Wednesday afternoon.
“Thank you Governor @tatereeves for taking decisive and uniform statewide action to save lives in Mississippi!! Tupelo will enforce the same mandate without exception,” the Democratic mayor wrote.
Last week, Shelton and other mayors questioned or criticized Reeves’ decision to declare a broad swath of businesses as “essential,” including some they had ordered closed. Those will still be able to operate under the shelter-in-place order, including businesses and organizations, real-estate services, construction services, gun and ammo stores, retail department stores, and houses of worship and “faith-based facilities.”
However, Reeves told reporters this afternoon that while he does not believe government should close churches, he does expect them to follow his 10-or-few gathering mandate going forward.
Wednesday’s order clarified that while the it “shall be construed broadly to avoid impact or interruption of the delivery of essential health care,” it does not exempt “fitness and exercise gyms, dance studios, clubs, tattoo parlors, spas, salons, barber shops, and other similar personal care and grooming facilities,” all of which must cease most operations on Friday.
The order allows non-essential businesses to continue “minimum operations,” which it defines as “those activities necessary for the business or operation to maintain the condition of facilities, premises and equipment, value of business inventory, payroll, employee benefits, security, and to facilitate employees of the business or operation to continue to work remotely from their residences.”
Restaurants and bars will be able to remain open, but will be limited to only curbside, delivery or drive-thru services, with no-dine in service allowed anywhere in the state, and while following social-distancing requirements.
All evictions in the state are suspended under the order, but that does not relieve “any individual of the obligation to pay rent, to make mortgage payments, or to comply with any obligation that an individual may have under a tenancy or mortgage,” the order states.
Once the order takes effect, all public, private, and other non-essential gatherings in groups of 10 people in a single place at the same time” where people are in closer proximity than 6 feet must be canceled.
Reeves: Those Not Taking COVID-19 Seriously ‘Are Wrong’
During his press conference Wednesday, Reeves said that the ban on gatherings of 10 or more also applies to churches and other houses of worship, which he includes in his list of “essential” services. Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer, said at the press conference that social gatherings like weddings and funerals, which will also be subject to the 10-person limit, are furthering the virus’ spread in the state.
The order’s list of “essential activities” that people may leave their homes to engage in include: “tasks necessary to their health and safety, or the health and safety of their family or household members (including pets) or the health and safety of those persons who are unable to or should not leave their home”; shopping trips to “obtain necessary food, services, or supplies” or to deliver them to those who are unable to leave their homes; outdoor “activity and recreation,” including walking trails (which will remain open); and “to perform work providing essential products and services” as defined in Executive Order No. 1463, which Reeves issued last week.
The order requires people to maintain a distance of 6 feet from others “at all times” when in public spaces outside their homes or residences.
“For individuals whose residences are unsafe or become unsafe (for example, because of domestic violence, lack of sanitation or utilities) they may, and are encouraged to, seek alternate locations,” the order states. “Local law enforcement and other officials shall assist such individuals to secure such alternative locations.”
During his press conference Wednesday, the governor urged Mississippians to take the shelter-in-place order seriously.
“This will not be easy for anyone, but we believe it is right. … We know that there are some who still do not have a healthy fear of this virus,” the governor said Wednesday afternoon. “They are wrong, and they are risking lives if they do not take this seriously.”
The Mississippi Free Press has an interactive map showing diagnosed coronavirus cases across the state and one showing the number of ICU beds in counties across the state.