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Holdout States Resist Calls for Stay-at-Home Orders: ‘What Are You Waiting For?’

A surge in coronavirus deaths in the United States has prompted the vast majority of governors to order their residents to stay home, but a small number of states are resisting increasingly urgent calls to shut down.The pressure on the holdouts in the Midwest and the South has mounted in recent days as fellow governors, public-health experts and even their own citizens urge them to adopt tougher measures that have been put in place across 41 states and Washington, D.C.Health experts warn that the coronavirus can easily exploit any gaps in a state-by-state patchwork of social distancing in the country, where the death toll climbed past 6,600 on Friday.”I just don’t understand why we’re not doing that,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, said on CNN. “We really should be.”By Friday, nine states had yet to issue formal statewide stay-at-home orders. It is the most direct, stringent measure available, going beyond closing down restaurants and schools and instructing all residents to stay at home, except for necessities. In some of those states, cities and counties had stepped in to issue their own orders, leaving a patchwork of restrictions.The contrast is the starkest in five states — Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota — where there are no such orders in place, either in major cities or statewide. Another four had partial restrictions issued locally in certain cities or counties.In interviews and at news conferences this week, the governors in the holdout states defended their decision, saying that they had already taken strong steps — closing schools, and shutting down or limiting many aspects of public life, including restaurants, bars, gyms, bowling alleys and movie theaters.”I can’t lock the state down,” said Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa, which has recorded more than 600 confirmed cases and at least 11 deaths. “People also have to be responsible for themselves.”For many conservative governors who believe strongly in small government and personal responsibility, the prospect of mandatory stay-at-home orders is anathema and they rejected what they called a catchall approach that could wreck their states’ economies. Though governors issuing the orders elsewhere have spanned the political spectrum, with some Republican governors emerging as early and strong advocates, the remaining holdout states are all Republican-led.Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota said he was appealing to residents “who love liberty and freedom” to respect social-distancing rules. “It’s important that we exercise individual responsibility,” he said at a news conference. “By following these guidelines, we’re literally saving lives.”Some holdout governors have issued different levels of restrictions within their states. Iowa has adopted a point system to determine whether particular parts of the state should be ordered to shelter in place. In Nebraska, restaurants in more rural areas were still open for customers to eat-in — as long as there were fewer than 10 at a time.Other states with partial restrictions in cities or counties, but no statewide orders, included Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Wyoming.Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas had previously toughened social-distancing guidelines, but stopped short of calling the move a statewide stay-at-home order; on Friday, a spokesman clarified that Texas was indeed under a statewide mandate. Also Friday, the governors of Missouri and Alabama, who had previously resisted such a move, also issued stay-at-home orders.”Some will naturally say, why did you wait so long?” Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama said. “Others will say, why now?” She said she had sought balanced measures that “would look out for people’s safety while keeping government from choking the life out of business and commerce.”In many of the holdout states — largely rural, with far fewer cases than the hardest hit regions like New York City — residents said they were already social distancing, even without formal orders.Still, some feared the lack of clear instructions could leave dangerous gaps.”If we don’t get some clear directive from our governor, people will begin to rationalize reasons for getting together: ‘It’s not that bad. I see them anyway at the store,'” said Nancy DeBoer, a nurse in Brookings, South Dakota, home to South Dakota State University. “It’s our governor’s responsibility to show some leadership.”Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas said in an interview that the typical stay-at-home order was a misleading “illusion” because it includes so many exemptions allowing people to go out in public, such as for groceries or exercise. He said Arkansas had taken “very aggressive measures,” and said ordering people to stay at home would simply leave thousands jobless.”If I signed it today, more than 700,000 people would get up and go to work tomorrow,” he said, adding another 100,000 would be suddenly unemployed.The different approaches have created a rift between states, angering other governors and residents living under stricter orders just across state lines. A Tennessee congressman wrote the governor of Arkansas asking for a stay-at-home order so that the virus did not spread next door.”What are you waiting for?” Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, who issued the first statewide order last month, told CNN when asked about governors who have not followed suit. “What more evidence do you need? If you think it’s not going to happen to you, there are many proof points all across this country.”People demanding tougher measures are barraging elected officials with phone calls and social-media messages.A doctor in Iowa and a registered nurse in South Dakota have started online petitions. In Nebraska, the Facebook page of Gov. Pete Ricketts is filled with commenters second-guessing his decision. “PLEASE issue a stay at home order!” one person wrote. “Very soon it is going to be too late!!””We’ve got people begging us,” said Rod Sullivan, chair of the board of supervisors in Johnson County, Iowa, who said he had gotten calls at home and on his cellphone asking why he had not done more to keep people at home. Under state law, he said, such an order must come from the governor.”It’s hard to just tell them there’s nothing we can do,” he said.Many residents said they were taking precautions and social distancing anyway, organizing virtual Bingo games, taking children on “bear hunts” to see teddy bears positioned outside homes or in windows in the neighborhood and organizing car cruise nights, where residents pile in their cars and drive the local strip, waving at each other from a safe distance.”You end up with some self-governance,” said Michael Stepp, the owner of a tap room and coffee spot in O’Neill, Nebraska, who said he does not think a statewide order is needed because most residents, like himself, are largely staying home anyway.”It’s more a result of the general outlook and demeanor of Midwest people,” he said. “Everybody wants to be helpful.”For some residents, further restrictions seemed both daunting and unnecessary. Connie Wright is already working out of her home in Altoona, Iowa, coordinating insurance payments for a hospital system. Her gym is closed, so she cannot get out of the house to take Zumba classes and chat with friends she has made there.The only thing keeping her sane these days, it seems, is walking on the bike trail behind her house and seeing her grandchildren, who still come over to dance to Disney music and songs from the 1960s. She fears even those small comforts could go away if the governor gives in to what Wright sees as pressure from critics to issue a stay-at-home order.”It would be depressing,” said Wright, 51, who said she appreciated that the governor was showing faith in residents to do the right thing. “You might as well slap an ankle bracelet on me.”A stretch of Interstate 40, which runs from downtown Memphis, Tennessee, across the Mississippi River into Arkansas, has come to illustrate the patchwork of rules restricting movement in the United States. On the Arkansas side of the river, where the governor has resisted a statewide mandate, some “nonessential” businesses remain open. On the Tennessee side, a stay-at-home order went into effect this week, closing stores.Now, the owner of a chain of clothing stores called Deep South, located on both sides of the Mississippi, is operating under two different sets of rules. The company’s owner, Munther Awad, a 47-year-old immigrant from the Middle East, said he owns two stores in Arkansas, which are open, one in West Memphis and another in Little Rock. And he owns a third store in Memphis, which is now closed because of a local mandate last week.”I feel like if you would have just went ahead and put the whole nation at the same time on a lockdown, we could have got some control over it,” said Lavanda Mayfield, 33, who was waiting to serve takeout to customers at the Iron Skillet restaurant at a truck stop near I-40 in West Memphis on Friday.”But now it’s just out of control,” she said, “because you did state-to-state.”This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company

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