TALLAHASSEE — Republican governors across the Southeast are teaming up to reopen the region’s economy, even as they lack the testing to know how rapidly the coronavirus is spreading.
One health expert called the political decision a “perfect storm” for the virus to reassert itself.
The newly formed coalition includes Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, a part of the country that has underfunded health systems, as well as high rates of obesity, diabetes and other illnesses that amplify the deadliness of the coronavirus.
And unlike their peers in New York, New Jersey and other Northeastern states that have been working cooperatively since last week to restart their economies, the six in the South have lagged on testing and social distancing measures.
“If you put these states together, there is a perfect storm for a massive epidemic peak later on,” said Jill Roberts of the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health. “The Southeast region is not known for having the best health record. Diabetes and heart disease come to mind. I am very concerned about how our states will do it.”
It’s not evident how the coalition will work. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis mentioned the move Tuesday on “Fox & Friends,” but there was no formal announcement or much communication from other states involved.
“We have had a meeting with all the Southeastern governors — Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and Tennessee,” DeSantis said. “And we shared a lot of ideas. I think we will be the same page on some stuff.”
Governors from Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi did not respond to questions.
DeSantis communications director Helen Aguirre Ferré wrote on Twitter that the six states would be “working in a coalition.”
As of Tuesday morning, the six states had collectively tested about one-tenth of 1 percent of their total populations. Mississippi, which ranks 15th nationally in testing, had the group’s best testing rate at 1.7 percent of its population. Georgia was the lowest, with a testing rate of less than one one-hundredth of 1 percent, or 42nd in the country, according to the Covid Tracking Project.
By comparison, the coalition of seven states in the Northeast has a collective testing rate twice that of the Southeast, having swabbed more than two-tenths of 1 percent of their collective population.
Five of the seven states included in the Northeastern coalition are in the top 15 nationally in per-capita testing.
Beyond the numbers, the two regions differ culturally and in the political instincts of their leaders. Even as the Northeast looks to band together, its governors are urging caution.
Southern governors, most of whom have built political careers on small-government conservatism, are driving, by contrast, to restart their economies and get people back to work, even as infections mount.
Southern governors, including DeSantis, point to their slowing rate of increases of positive tests and falling numbers of hospitalizations.
On Tuesday, DeSantis jabbed the media and public health experts for predicting initially that state hospitals would be overwhelmed.
“Our work is succeeding,” DeSantis told reporters. “We flattened the curve.”
Dr. Aileen Marty, a pandemic and infectious disease expert at Florida International University, said gains made through social distancing and other precautions are good signs, but not the signal to loosen efforts that Southern governors think they are.
“They are heavily Republican with social conservatives who are all of a like mind,” Marty said. “They are tempting fate by having the virus out and about among us, but if they don’t do it in a controlled way, we will again be back in situations of overwhelmed hospitals and more people dying.”
She praised Republican Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who has not pushed as hard to reopen areas of his county, including beaches. Gimenez has said the county should considering reopening, but is not moving at the same pace as DeSantis and some governors.
“They are making decisions with inadequate knowledge,” Marty said of the governors. “They should be more like Carlos Gimenez, and put in strict measures on how people should behave when initially out.”
Georgia drew national attention — and some ridicule — after Republican Gov. Brian Kemp said Monday that he would allow bowling alleys, gyms, nail salons and massage therapists to reopen on Friday, and let theaters show movies starting Monday, even as he admits the number of cases is likely to grow.
“This is the right approach at the right time,” Kemp told reporters Monday. “We’re probably going to see our cases continue to go up, but we’re a lot better prepared for that now than we were over a month ago.”
Roberts, with the University of South Florida, called the move fraught with peril.
“I kind of enjoyed Gov. Kemp’s talk about reopening these places with ‘screening.’ He did not say testing. That capacity does not exist,” Roberts said. “My guess is he meant taking temperatures, which as we know is pointless,” because asymptomatic people can carry and spread the coronavirus.
Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb was equally blunt.
“Gyms, nail salons, bowling alleys, hair salons, tattoo parlors,” he said Tuesday on CNBC. “It feels like they collected a list of the businesses you know that were most risky and decided to open those first.”