Some Southern US towns weigh reopening; others brace for worst

Many small towns did not wait for a surge in coronavirus cases to put in strict measures to prevent the virus’s spread.

The medical director of the Delta Health Center questions a drive-up patient for COVID-19 testing at the center's Dr H Jack Geiger Medical Center in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, the United States [Rogelio V Solis/AP Photo]

Jonesboro, Arkansas As parts of the United States begin looking towards what “business as usual” could look like, many mayors are still bracing for the worst.

In a news conference late last week, West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon pleaded with residents to keep taking this seriously.

“Stay your a** at home,” McClendon said.

McClendon told Al Jazeera that while some in his community still think they’re “invincible”, most people in his town in eastern Arkansas were taking the threat of coronavirus seriously.

“Right now I’m not having a major pushback [to reopen],” McClendon said, adding that there is still a curfew, but some business owners like barbers and beauticians have approached him with ways to reopen and still follow the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.

Crittenden County, where West Memphis is located, has the highest per capita number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in all of Arkansas’s counties. The town neighbours Memphis, Tennessee, a metropolis of around one million residents, whose county of Shelby has over 1,800 confirmed cases – more than in the entire state of Arkansas.

“Being that close to Memphis brings me worry,” McClendon said.

People who lost their jobs wait in line to file for unemployment benefits, following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Arkansas Workforce Center in Fort Smith, Arkansas [Nick Oxford/Reuters] 

Even before there was a confirmed case in West Memphis earlier this month, McClendon said he put together a task force that included members of the police department and emergency medical service responders. Among other things, they set up some checkpoints to limit access for out-of-towners, many of whom travel cross country by way of one of two major interstate highways that run through the town. The task force has continued to make sure that individuals who test positive are taken care of.

“They are given two weeks’ worth of food, so they would have no need to get outside,” McClendon said, adding that the task force is also delivering additional necessities, upon request.

For weeks, mayors across the South have been following the guidelines set by the CDC and their respective governors, which oftentimes do not mirror neighbouring states. As social distancing has contributed to a lower number of projected confirmed cases and fatalities across the US, as well as the region, states have begun to consider “reopening” local economies.

Large southern cities such as New Orleans, Louisiana and Atlanta, Georgia have been slammed, with reports that it could still get worse, and many parts of the South still have not peaked. Broadly speaking, however, smaller towns have not seen the overwhelming numbers of coronavirus cases that so many have feared, which has led many mayors to weigh whether it’s time to start loosening some regulations.

Weighing options

The town of Lake Providence, Louisiana has only seen two confirmed cases against 200 negative tests in a community of around 5,000 people. Mayor Jerry Bell said he was encouraged by these numbers, something he attributed in part to being fairly rural and insulated, but he is still telling people to continue wearing masks.

“We don’t have many cases, however, we are taking all the precautions necessary not to have any more than we do have,” he said.

In Mississippi, which like Louisiana has a statewide shelter-in-place policy, Mayersville has yet to see a confirmed case.

“I think now the peak has been reached, and we are at the curve,” said Mayor Linda Williams-Short. “Our government [of Mississippi] says to give us at least another week, so we’re looking at another week before we can start opening our businesses, and that nature.”

A Mound Bayou resident braces for a nasal swab by one of the Delta Health Center staff at a free drive-though COVID-19 testing facility at the center’s Dr H Jack Geiger Medical Center in Mound Bayou, Mississippi [Rogelio V Solis/AP Photo]  

Kevin Smith, mayor of Helena-West Helena in Arkansas, isn’t ready to let up. The entire county of Phillips, where his town is located, only has four confirmed cases – something Smith said is not representative of what is happening. Without more testing, especially in a community where he says people are culturally hesitant to visit doctors, partly due to finances, it is difficult to ascertain the exact reality of the problem.

“The [Mississippi] Delta is at the bottom of every good statistic, and at the top of every bad statistic in healthcare and several other things,” Smith said, referring to the region of the US where his part of Arkansas is located.

In addition to encouraging Helena-West Helena residents to show up for drive-through testing sites, he is still pushing the state to provide more personal protective equipment to his community. At the moment, Smith said equipment is being prioritised for counties that demonstrate a more immediate need through a higher number of confirmed cases, which he argued is a result of more testing – not necessarily a higher need. He pointed to other factors that needed to be considered, such as vulnerable populations, including his own, which has a higher percentage of elderly people and those with a higher incidence of underlying health conditions.

“If you’re a duck hunter, when you go duck hunting, and you aim your gun, you don’t aim at the duck. You aim where the duck is headed,” Smith said.

“And that’s what a lot of this has been about, is trying to get there before it happens in order to prevent it from being so bad,” he added. “Clearly the duck is headed for us.”

Source: Al Jazeera