NC-eases-COVID-restrictions North Carolina is taking a slower approach than surrounding states in easing COVID-19 restrictions.
Image via N.C. DPS.

Gov. Roy Cooper ordered the state move to Phase 2 of reopening Friday. But questions remain about the virus’ spread. 

North and South Carolina  have taken vastly different approaches to containing the COVID-19 pandemic and reopening their economies.

While supporters of N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, have praised Cooper’s social distancing orders, and most polling indicates general support from North Carolinians, some detractors say the restrictions placed an unnecessary drag on the economy.

Cooper has largely emphasized caution, mandating those orders earlier and relaxing restrictions more slowly than most surrounding states. 

“The reason that you slowly ease off is so you can adjust and be willing and able to go in and intensify some of the efforts that you are making, whether that is emphasizing social spacing, washing your hands [or] wearing masks,” said Sen. Dan Blue, the Raleigh Democrat who serves as the state Senate’s Minority Leader. “It gives you the ability to manage [the outbreak] so much better.”

RELATED: Cooper on RNC: ‘We Are Not Going To Sacrifice The Health and Safety of North Carolinians.’

But South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, reopened some businesses as early as April 20.

Both states’ policies have run counter to the White House’s recommended benchmarks to meet before reversing restrictions.

“South Carolina has done a better job of opening the economy. Gov. McMaster recognizes the toll that the stay-at-home order has taken on businesses,” says Maya Pillai, founder of Reopen Meck, an offshoot of the statewide Reopen NC group, which advocates for lifting restrictions on businesses as soon as possible. 

While Reopen NC counts more than 79,000 members on Facebook, it’s not clear how many of those are from NC or support the group’s positions. It is also connected with conservatives backing President Trump and other Republican officials. 

Different paths for the Carolinas 

North Carolina issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 27, barring all but essential activities, shuttering dine-in restaurants and limiting stores remaining open to operating at 20% capacity. On May 8, the state transitioned to Phase 1, raising retail capacity to 50%. The stay-at-home order expired Friday when Phase 2 opened more businesses including nail and hair salons, restaurants and pools.

In South Carolina, Gov. McMaster waited until April 7 to issue his statewide “Home or Work” order, which limited travel to work commutes, family visits and trips to buy essential goods such as groceries, medical supplies or medication, supplies and equipment needed to work from home, and products needed to maintain safety, sanitation, and home maintenance. Retail stores were also capped at 20% of building capacity.  As restrictions relaxed, beaches and additional retail stores opened on April 20. McMaster lifted the Home or Work order on May 4, allowing restaurants to open.

What’s been the result? It’s hard to say, given how early it is in the pandemic’s spread and variables like underlying health conditions, health care access and existing racial health disparities playing into how COVID-19 impacts communities. 

But as of Monday, North Carolina reported 22,725 cases of COVID-19 and 737 deaths, or 229.4 cases and 7.5 deaths per 100,000. South Carolina reported 9,896 cases and 425 deaths or 197.7 cases and 8.5 deaths per 100,000.

On the surface level, the data seem to say the two Carolinas’ contrasting policies yielded comparable results per capita. Yet North Carolina has conducted significantly more tests. As of Tuesday, NC had completed 364,156 tests, compared to 178,119 in South Carolina.

Blue believes North Carolina would have seen more deaths and far more cases if it had taken a more lenient approach because the virus spreads exponentially, but he did not address the disparity in testing capacity between the two states. After running an analysis of data from the COVID-19 tracking project, WFAE radio reported that North Carolina testing track record came in 45th among all 50 states, and that South Carolina’s coronavirus testing came in 49th. 

“The nature of this virus is that it’s going to be very opportunistic, and once you let down your guard it’s going to whomp you on the head,” Blue said.

If North Carolina’s response to COVID-19 had been as lenient as South Carolina’s, the rate of infection would be far greater than merely doubled, he maintained.

“I’m supportive of how the governor has handled North Carolina slowly easing out of the shutdown,” Blue said. “Frankly, I think McMaster should have followed North Carolina’s example.”

How other southern neighbors are faring 

As with the Carolinas, surrounding state governments have followed different routes to stem the spread of the virus and reopen their economies. Their results are a mixed bag, showing little correlation between safety measures and results. The situation illustrates how unpredictable the coronavirus is and how much we still do not know about it.

In a March 26 NPR interview, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called COVID-19 “a unique virus [with] which we had no experience before.”

Stressing the necessity of adopting different approaches for different regions, Dr Fauci continued: “You’re going to be seeing more stringent shutdown[s] depending upon where you are. But there are regions of the country where, rather than shut down, we should be doing the kind of containment, which is seeking out, identifying, testing, contact tracing and isolating.” 

Although Tennessee’s restrictions have been relatively lax compared to North Carolina’s, the state so far has had a lower per capita death rate than North Carolina. Tennessee reported 19,789 coronavirus cases and 325 deaths on Monday, or 300.7 cases and 4.9 deaths per 100,000 residents. 

On March 31, Republican Gov. Bill Lee issued his safer-at-home order which exempted Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Madison, Sullivan and Shelby Counties which operate their own health departments. Larger cities such as Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, and Knoxville are in those counties. 

Lee’s order curtailed travel, while allowing trips to care for the elderly, minors, dependents, journeys to pick up meals and educational materials and travel required by law, law enforcement, or court order. Restaurants which had been closed except for delivery and take-out on March 23 opened on April 27. The safer-at-home order expired on April 30, and a majority of businesses, including gyms and personal fitness centers, reopened their doors on  May 1. On May 6, barber shops and hair and nail salons opened in 89 of the state’s 95 counties, once again exempting the six counties which follow guidelines set by their own health departments. 

Georgia has been hit particularly hard by the virus, reporting a higher percentage of fatalities than its neighboring states. With 408.8 positive cases and 17.4 deaths per 100,000, the state reported 42,800 coronavirus cases and 1,823 deaths on Monday. 

On April 3, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp issued a shelter-in-place order, closing businesses including bars, gyms, theaters and restaurants for dine-in services only, through April 30. But then Kemp, a Republican, abruptly shifted course, lifting the order, and opening churches and businesses such as gyms, salons, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys on April 24. 

A clear picture of COVID-19 in Georgia is reportedly clouded by contaminated data. An initial presentation of coronavirus data by Georgia’s Department of Public Health displayed the figures out of chronological order, making it look like the state’s infection rate was going down when it actually was flat. Although Gov. Kemp’s office has issued an apology, Georgia continues to face scrutiny.

Like North Carolina, Virginia proceeded cautiously, but those efforts have not translated into increased safety for its population. On March 30, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, issued a stay-at-home order lasting until June 10. Phase 1 eased restrictions on May 15, enabling retail stores to open at half their normal capacity while allowing drive-through at places of worship to increase from 10 people to 50% capacity. 

But Virginia has still seen the virus grow, despite Northam’s attempts to stem the virus’ growth. Virginia reported 36,244 confirmed coronavirus cases and 1,171 deaths on Monday, or 442 cases and 14.2 deaths per 100,000.

Florida’s handling of the contagious virus is also under the microscope. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ April 3 stay-at-home order was rescinded on May 4. By May 18, all of Florida was reopening for Full Phase 1, which opened sit-down restaurants, retail stores, museums and libraries and gyms and fitness centers at 50% capacity. Professional sports venues were also encouraged to open.

But on May 5, Dr. Rebekah Jones, who headed Florida’s COVID-19 database, claimed she was fired by DeSantis because she did not manipulate coronavirus data to support reopening. On May 20, DeSantis denied her claims and called the controversy a “non-issue.”

On Monday, Florida reported 50,127 coronavirus cases and 2,190 deaths, or 240.9 cases and 10.5 deaths per 100,000 

RELATED: Why COVID-19 Death Rates in Rural North Carolina Are Staggering

Both Blue and Pillai believe that allegations of data manipulation in Georgia and Florida are true. 

“Criticism for Georgia is certainly warranted,” said Pillai, adding that she believes Florida deserves criticism too.

“If you want to rely on the science, you have to have reliable data,” Blue offered. “The worst thing that you could do, to make people believe that a situation is not serious, is to start cooking the books.” 

With neighboring states enacting vastly different approaches to containing infection and protecting their populations, it’s difficult to enforce policy, maintained Pillai and Blue, particularly with people crossing borders. 

“I’ve been going down to South Carolina every week to go to restaurants, salons, and nail spas,” Pillai said. “I’m not the only one doing this either.” 

She believes that there is little risk of spreading infection as long as businesses practice social distancing and proper sanitation guidelines, including hand-washing.

As for face masks, Pillai believes businesses have the right to require patrons wear them, but masks should be optional for customers.  

On Wednesday, after Cooper announced the implementation of Phase 2, Reopen NC expressed opposition to North Carolina’s restrictions on Facebook. 

“How can we be ‘safer at home’ in NC, but you can cross the border to SC & TN and do as you please?” the post said. “People will get this taste of freedom and they will no longer ask ‘Mother May I’ to Cooper.” 

But Blue stressed that North Carolina has historically set an example for surrounding states.

“We tend to be leaders, and if we were simply to exceed what the surrounding states are doing because it’s easier to do that, then we wouldn’t be leading,” Blue said. “We wouldn’t be true to the science that is informing us what we ought to do.”