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FILE -- Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, left, speaks at a press conference.

Mississippi gov issues stay-home order for 1 of 82 counties

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves issued his first stay-at-home order Tuesday against the new coronavirus, but it is only for one of the state’s 82 counties.

Reeves said Lauderdale County, on the state line with Alabama, has seen a recent rapid increase in positive tests for the highly contagious virus.

The mayor of Gulfport, meanwhile, set what he calls a “safer at home” order for his own coastal city, saying that people have “selfishly” ignored recommendations not to congregate in large groups.

“We can choose to endure 4-6 weeks of debilitating hardship, or 6-8 months of devastating quarantine,” Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes said in a statement Tuesday. “Based upon trends around the country, matters are likely to get worse, before they get better. While this ‘inconvenience’ has cramped our style, the sad fact is, it’s likely to start killing our friends and neighbors. It’s that serious.”

The governor’s order for Lauderdale County begins at 10 p.m. Tuesday and lasts for two weeks. Reeves and the state epidemiologist, Dr. Paul Byers, said a nursing home there is considered a hot spot for the virus.

They would not release the name of the nursing home but said employees, residents, families and others who have been in contact with the home have been notified. Byers said the Health Department is also working to identify people who have been in contact with those testing positive for the virus and is asking them to self-quarantine.

Reeves said he could issue more stay-at-home orders for other parts of Mississippi if test results show other hot spots developing.

“There are those who believe that government ought to take over and run everything,” said Reeves, a Republican. “There are those of us who are going to take a data-driven approach.”

Reeves said Byers and the state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, have recommended that he evaluate which parts of the state are seeing faster growth in cases as he decides whether to put more limits on people’s movements.

A mayor in northeast Mississippi, Jason Shelton of Tupelo, criticized Reeves for issuing an order that affects only one county.

“The businesses in Lauderdale County are simply losing customers to surrounding counties and BTW covid doesn’t stop at the county line … the hodgepodge approach is baffling,” Shelton, a Democrat, said Tuesday on Twitter.

The state Health Department on Tuesday updated Mississippi’s confirmed coronavirus caseload to at least 937 people and 20 deaths. Neighboring Louisiana has one of the fastest-growing caseloads in the U.S., and people commute between the two states.

Because testing remains limited as the outbreak grows, many people moving around their communities may not know they’ve contracted the virus until well after they’ve infected others. Most infected people experience mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, but a fraction of people suffering more severe illnesses can require respirators to survive, and as as the caseload rapidly grows, hospitals are bracing for a wave of patients.

Reeves issued an executive order last week telling people to avoid gatherings of 10 or more and broadly defining which businesses are so “essential” that they can remain open. That order said restaurants can offer carry-out or delivery meals but must close their dining rooms unless they’re able to keep 10 or fewer people, including staff, at least 6 feet (2 meters) apart. Reeves said it is OK for cities and counties to set tighter restrictions, and several have done so.

Reeves’s order for Lauderdale County allows essential businesses such as grocery stores and pharmacies to remain open, and it allows people to leave home to go to those places. The order tells other businesses to continue only their necessary operations such as security, payroll and health insurance administration and to let employees work from home. It tells people to cancel or reschedule all nonessential gatherings of 10 or more people. It also eliminates the limited dine-in option for bars and restaurants in the county.

Lauderdale County is home to a naval air station and is a commercial hub in largely rural eastern Mississippi, with people from Alabama also driving there to work and shop.

Asked if he is concerned that Lauderdale County residents will ignore his stay-at-home order and go shopping in other parts of the state, Reeves said: “I am confident that Mississippians are smart enough, are patriotic enough, are paying attention to what we are saying.”

Hewes’s stay-home order in Gulfport takes effect Tuesday night and does not have an ending date. It says people may go to grocery stores and pharmacies but they should not visit friends or family unless there’s an urgent need. It also has a nighttime curfew.

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