ELGIN, S.C. — With South Carolina’s first coronavirus hot spot just a short jaunt up the highway, Johellen Lee hadn’t been out for anything but groceries for nearly a month.
“I looked like a hag,” she said.
So she headed to see her best friend and hair stylist Erica Nealy at her beauty salon in Elgin — one of the businesses that local and state governments across the South are arguing about whether to keep open as they seek to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“This job is essential to me. It’s essential to buying my groceries and paying my bills,” said Nealy, wearing a disposable mask and gloves after spraying the salon chair with a bleach solution for her next customer Friday.
As much of the country has closed everything but food stores and medical facilities, many places down South remain open. Bars, sporting events, and sit-down dining rooms are closed. But in many towns, employees of the local plant that closed for two weeks can still work out at the gym or get their nails done, hair trimmed, 15 minutes in the tanning bed, and supplies for their backyard pool.
Southern governors have resisted “stay-at-home” orders that would close virtually all businesses. South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster said his people follow rules and are “courteous. They’re gentle. They’re smart.” Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said in a Facebook question-and-answer session that “Mississippi’s never going to be China,” referring to the authoritarian country’s near total shutdown of COVID-19 hot spots. And Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said on a televised town hall that he has to “govern the whole state,” including places with no coronavirus cases.
In a country as large as the United States and even in an individual state, different responses can make sense with a virus like this one spread through close contact, said Brian Bossak, a professor who teaches epidemiology and public health courses at the College of Charleston.
“It’s not like a radioactive cloud that affects everyone, everywhere in the same manner,” Bossak wrote in an e-mail.
The positions of their governors have left local governments in the South to pass their own orders requiring people to stay home unless going to the grocery store or for medical help. The largest cities in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama have all passed their own rules closing nonessential businesses that are stricter than their governors’.
But even those orders have broad exemptions. In Charleston, S.C., nail salons and gyms are not essential businesses. But dry cleaners and animal groomers are and can stay open.
“Being a small business is hard enough as it is. How do they choose who gets to stay open and who goes under?” said Aric Strickland, owner of Leisure Life Pools, Spas & Billiards in Lugoff, S.C., where no local order has been passed.
Strickland’s business, like Nealy’s salon, is in Kershaw County, which has a population of about 66,500. As of Friday, the county had at least 70 of the state’s almost 540 confirmed COVID-19 cases, the second most of any county in the state.
Nealy’s business isn’t threatened for now like barber shops and beauty salons in Columbia, which passed a stay-at-home ordinance that starts early Sunday morning.
Patrick Goodman sat in his barber chair Thursday at a shop on Main Street in Columbia, scrolling through social media for news about the City Council meeting where the order passed while waiting for a customer.
“I figure I can close for a month. But I’m done after that,” Goodman said.