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Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina say businesses can reopen soon

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster spoke during a briefing on COVID-19 on Monday.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster spoke during a briefing on COVID-19 on Monday.Meg Kinnard/Associated Press

ATLANTA — Residents of Georgia will be allowed Friday to return to the gym and get haircuts, pedicures, massages and tattoos. Next Monday, they can dine again in restaurants and go to the movies.

With that announcement, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia on Monday joined officials in other states who are moving ahead with plans to relax restrictions intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus, despite signs that the outbreak is just beginning to strike some parts of the country.

In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee said Monday that he was not extending his “safer-at-home” order that is set to expire April 30. According to his office, “the vast majority of businesses in 89 counties” will be allowed to reopen May 1. Businesses in Ohio are expected to reopen on that date as well.

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“We’re going to do what we think is right — what I think is right — and that is try to open this economy,” Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “but do it very, very carefully so we don’t get a lot of people killed.”

In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, said Monday that department stores and some other retail businesses that had previously been deemed nonessential would be allowed to reopen Tuesday, but they must abide by social distancing guidelines. People will also be able to gain access to public beaches Tuesday.

Across the country, governors have been weighing steps toward lifting orders and reviving their stalled economies. A lack of sufficient widespread testing has been seen as one of the main obstacles.

Kemp, in his news conference Monday, said he had been frustrated by the issue of testing capacity, but that he also believed that the crisis had leveled off enough to ease restrictions and help alleviate the economic anguish they have helped create. Georgia has had more than 19,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with 775 deaths, according to state public health officials.

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He said that stores were not reopening for “business as usual,” noting that social distancing rules still must be enforced, and businesses should check employees’ temperatures for fevers and ramp up sanitation efforts.

The move to reopen, he said, was “a small step forward and should be treated as such.”

Kemp and Lee, both Republicans, were among the governors who were criticized for being slow to impose statewide closure orders. Both had expressed concerns about an invasion of civil liberties and the economic strain that closing down large parts of the economy would create.

Parts of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a string of barrier islands whose beaches are popular with tourists, are also moving forward with lifting restrictions for entry, officials said.

Emergency officials from Dare County, North Carolina, which includes the towns of Nags Head, Kitty Hawk and Southern Shores, said in a statement Monday that the decision was based on “careful consideration of the science, trends, data and resource availability.” The county has had 15 diagnosed cases, with one death, officials said.

In Ohio, even as plans were being put in place to reopen, a state prison about an hour’s drive north of the capital became the largest-known source of coronavirus infections in the U.S., continuing a trend of fast-moving outbreaks in crowded, confined spaces.

Officials said that at least 1,828 inmates — almost three-quarters of the population — had tested positive for the coronavirus at the minimum- and medium-security prison in Marion, Ohio. That is more than the number of known cases from a meatpacking plant in South Dakota and a Navy aircraft carrier docked in Guam.

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“Once COVID-19 gets inside the gate, inside the door, it spreads, and it spreads very significantly,” DeWine, a Republican, said at a news conference Monday.

Although there have been encouraging signs that the outbreak is beginning to level off in some parts of the country, the threat is continuing to grow in other states and regions.

Even in areas where the number of new cases is beginning to flatten, they remain high: New York, which Monday reported its fewest positive tests in a month and its lowest one-day death toll in more than two weeks, still had 4,726 new cases and 478 new deaths. And the country has added more than 25,000 new cases a day for the past week.

In some parts of the country, there are signs that things are getting worse, not better.

In Massachusetts, which has been particularly hard hit in recent days, officials reported 1,705 new cases Sunday, bringing the state’s total to 38,077. Officials also reported 146 new deaths, which brought the death toll to 1,706.

“We’re right in the middle of the surge now,” Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Los Angeles County reported 81 deaths Saturday, its highest one-day death toll.

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“In this last week, we have doubled the number of deaths that occurred among LA County residents,” Barbara Ferrer, the county’s director of public health, said in a statement Saturday. Fewer deaths were reported Sunday — 24 — but county officials noted that nearly 1,000 new cases had been identified in the previous 48 hours.

Significant workplace-based clusters of known infections have been reported in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee and other states, suggesting that the pandemic is just beginning to sink into some communities.

Nursing homes and prisons also continue to be hot spots.

About 1 out of 5 confirmed cases in Ohio is now connected to the state’s prison system, according to statewide numbers. The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said that as of Sunday, at least 2,400 inmates in the system had tested positive, and seven had died of either confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infections.

No deaths have been reported among the inmates at the prison in Marion, but one staff member there has died, and 103 employees have tested positive. The prison announced its first positive case, of an employee, on March 29.

Pickaway Correctional Institution, southwest of Columbus, also had a large number of confirmed cases, with 384 inmates and 64 employees testing positive as of Sunday.

Despite warnings from health officials and attempts to release some inmates to prevent outbreaks, jails, prisons and detention centers have emerged as major coronavirus spreaders. As of Monday, four of the 10 largest-known sources of infection in the U.S. were correctional facilities, according to national data collected by The New York Times.

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More than half of the inmates at the Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro, North Carolina — 458 — have tested positive for the virus, county officials said. And there have been more than 600 cases involving inmates and staff members at the Cook County Jail in Chicago, where four inmates have died.

At one point last week, Chicago’s jail was the top-known source of U.S. infections, but other sources have since surpassed it.

The overall numbers inside prisons are most likely a vast undercount, because some state and local agencies have not released information about cases behind bars, and others, including the federal Bureau of Prisons, are not testing everyone who falls ill. In contrast, Ohio said it was testing aggressively inside prisons where the virus has been confirmed, extending tests even to prisoners who were not showing symptoms.

“The reason that you’re seeing the numbers spike, of course, is because we are massively testing now,” DeWine said. Prisons, or any place where people were living together in close quarters, he said, present “a very difficult situation.”

Dr. Amy Acton, the director of the Ohio Department of Health, said that despite the large number of positive cases detected in the prison system, many of the infected inmates were not sick.

“What was fascinating about some of that data was the amount of asymptomatic cases we are picking up,” Acton said, adding that neighboring states were getting similar results.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.