JACKSON – Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves is having to balance his libertarian-leaning instincts with public health concerns during the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s been his job the past several weeks to order some businesses to temporarily close and to restrict people’s face-to-face interactions to try to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus. His statewide “shelter in place” order remains in effect until May 25.

Reeves is gradually letting businesses reopen even as numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise.

Restaurants could start serving food and drinks their dining rooms and patios Thursday, after more than a month of being limited to carry-out service or deliveries. Barbershops, beauty salons and gyms are allowed to start reopening Monday. They all must meet safety standards such as limiting customers and taking extra steps for sanitation.

The governor has said repeatedly that people should use their own best judgment.

“If you are in the vulnerable category, if you are over the age of 65, if you have pre-existing conditions, getting out of your home has risks,” Reeves said Friday. “Going to a salon has risks, but we’re trying to put measures in place to minimize those risks. We recognize also that the spread of the virus has risks. The spread of the economic collapse has risks.”

Reeves spent eight years as state treasurer and eight as lieutenant governor before being inaugurated as governor in January. He has consistently advocated a limited role for state government. Legislators cut several thousand jobs from the state government workforce when Reeves had a big role in writing budgets as lieutenant governor.

Fairly early in the pandemic, Reeves said he’s concerned about people facing “abject poverty” because of job losses. It’s a phrase he has not often used in speeches or interviews during 16-plus years of serving in public office in a state that has been one of the poorest in the U.S. for generations. During news conferences about COVID-19, Reeves often mentions people who are having to file unemployment claims for the first time in their lives.

The governor says his top adviser during the pandemic is the state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs. He is also listening to business executives and to people who express concerns about the economy.

Reeves frequently says that restarting Mississippi’s economy is not like flipping a light switch from off to on but like using a dimmer switch to go from dull to bright.

He emphasizes the role of personal responsibility, saying that people should mostly remain home and that they should wear masks in public, keep distance between themselves and others and avoid taking the whole family to the grocery store if possible.

“If we do not want to return where we were several weeks ago, with more businesses closed and more shelter-in-place – I have to ultimately make that decision,” Reeves said last week. “But the thing is, the people of Mississippi can make that decision first – if the people of our state will be smart, if they’ll stay safe.”

Reeves said city and county law enforcement officers have done “a fantastic job” of enforcing safety orders during the pandemic, and state law enforcement officers are available to help them. As more businesses reopen, Reeves said the best enforcement of safety standards will come from within.

“The number one person that it is going to enforce this is the person that is actually opening the business. It’s the employees. It’s Mississippians. It’s people who care about not only themselves, but about their fellow man,” Reeves said. “I am convinced that the industries that we are reopening are going to do a better job of monitoring it themselves than any governmental entity ever will.”

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

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