Americans Face New Virus Limbo as Some Reopenings Are Halted
DENVER — Soaring cases of the coronavirus are forcing cities and states across the country to halt plans to restart their economies and even reimpose earlier limits on public life, increasing worries that premature reopenings could lead to a second round of closures.
In Texas, which reported a record high of more than 5,000 new cases on Tuesday, the governor told local officials they could restrict outdoor gatherings to 100 people and urged residents to stay home. Maine officials called off plans to allow bars to resume serving drinks inside on July 1. The governor of Kansas said rising cases showed that the state was “not ready” to continue easing restrictions. And in parts of central Idaho, where coronavirus cases have exploded in recent weeks, bars are shutting down and gatherings of more than 50 people are again outlawed.
“We may have let our guard down a little bit,” said Julie Gibbs, the health officer in Riley County, Kan., home to Kansas State University, where officials said they would tighten restrictions on large gatherings after the county’s total virus cases increased by 50 percent over the past week.
With the number of new daily cases now rising in more than half of the United States, the debate over whether to reimpose restrictions or push ahead with reopening is creating divides between neighboring cities and states that mirror the scattershot responses that emerged as the country went into lockdown this year.
“There’s very little appetite among the American public to go backwards,” said Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “As reopenings started there were no plans for what would constitute a red flag to close things down. People just said, ‘We’re reopening, everything’s fine, let’s move ahead.’”
But public health experts who supported the original shutdowns now worry that governments will not be able to constrain the resurgent coronavirus with a blizzard of shifting restrictions that can change the moment a person crosses a city limit or state line.
Hundreds of city, county and state governments have created their own reopening plans, each with different “phases” of economic reopening and each with their rules for how many people can gather at a party, what portion of a restaurant’s tables can be full and when people must wear masks. The results can be a baffling patchwork, and one that residents are left to navigate on their own.
Much of the new tension over the safety of reopening is playing out in the West and South, where the numbers are getting worse, and has split along partisan lines.
The governors of Louisiana and Oregon, both Democrats, recently paused their plans to ease restrictions on businesses and public life, saying it was not yet safe to more fully reopen. And on Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington ordered most people to wear face coverings in public.
“It is clear that Covid is alive and well in Louisiana, and as we see more people testing positive and admitted to hospitals, we simply are not ready to move to the next phase,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said, noting that about 90 percent of new cases were coming from spread in the community, not within nursing homes or other group living facilities.
But Republican governors in Florida, Arizona, Texas and other states grappling with rising daily case levels have resisted the prospect of locking down again.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas has declined to require Texans to wear masks and said that locking down the state again would be a last resort. But on Tuesday he urged residents to stay home in an interview with the television station KBTX.
“Because the spread is so rampant right now, there is never a reason for you to have to leave your home unless you do need to go out,” he said. “The safest place for you is at your home.”
In Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, said he had “no plans to shut down Utah’s economy” after the state’s epidemiologist warned that the “only viable option to manage spread and deaths will be a complete shutdown” and urged the governor to reimpose tougher limits on public life.
Shelby County, Tenn., which includes Memphis, was poised to ease its coronavirus restrictions to “phase three” last week, allowing businesses to operate at 75 percent of their normal capacity, but county leaders reconsidered as the number of active cases grew to more than 2,000. Since the start of the pandemic, about 8,000 people have been infected across the county, and 165 have died.
“We ramped up to reopen too quick,” said Tami Sawyer, a county commissioner who has urged the county to impose even tighter limitations. “We weren’t ready.”
With guidance from governments hard to pin down, the burden of deciding whether to stay open or shut down again in the face of a positive coronavirus test is falling on individual businesses.
Restaurants, electronics retailers, salons and bakeries across the country have been reopening only to shut down weeks later after workers or customers report illnesses — a pattern that business owners fear will repeat itself for months until there is a vaccine or treatment for Covid-19.
In Arizona, Gila River Hotels & Casinos announced on Thursday that three reopened casinos would close again for two weeks because of rising coronavirus cases in the state.
In Idaho, the Boise Fry Company decided to shut down its six locations after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus on Sunday — a wrenching decision after the business weathered more than two months of being closed and providing only takeout service.
“We were just starting to have a bit of momentum,” Blake Lingle, the restaurant’s owner, said. By Tuesday afternoon, three locations had opened yet again, and workers were deep-cleaning others.
But even as health officials imposed new restrictions on bars and nightclubs in Boise, conservative state legislators met on Tuesday to rail against what they called an infringement of freedoms because of the pandemic limits. Idaho reported 242 new coronavirus cases on Monday, its highest single-day tally, according to a New York Times database.
“What we’re seeing now is the effects of our earlier phases of reopening,” said Ben Ridenhour, a bio-mathematician and assistant professor at the University of Idaho who has modeled the virus’s course through the state. “It’s a little bit scary. The models are showing things are going to be getting worse unless we do something to rectify the situation.”
In Maine, Dewey Hasbrouck decided to impose his own restrictions at his restaurant, Moe’s Original BBQ, by delaying when he reopened the indoor dining room. While Maine is again allowing inside dining, Mr. Hasbrouck said he was not ready to take that step.
Just a week earlier, he closed his two locations in South Portland and Bangor after a part-time employee tested positive for the coronavirus. He has reopened the restaurants, but only for takeout and catering, he said.
“We’re still learning every day,” Mr. Hasbrouck said. “I want to make sure that we’re doing it in the safest way possible so I’m not rushing it.”
Jack Healy reported from Denver, Mitch Smith from Chicago and Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio from New York. David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Texas.