In recent weeks, several Southern states have begun rolling back stay-at-home restrictions put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

States such as South Carolina, Florida and Georgia have reopened retail stores, restaurants, parks and beaches, while also green-lighting many nonessential businesses to welcome back workers even as the number of coronavirus cases and deaths continues to rise around the nation.

The numbers are especially troublesome for African Americans, who have bore the brunt of the public health emergency. According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black people infected with COVID-19 are dying from it at disproportionate rates.

In Georgia, African Americans make up roughly 30 percent of the state’s population, but more than 50 percent of COVID-19 deaths and 36 percent of the almost 30,000 confirmed cases, according to the state’s health department.

Georgia has been a focal point in the burgeoning “Reopen” movement where protesters have taken to the streets in several states to urge local governments to abandon stay-at-home orders that came as a response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said in an interview with The Associated Press that he stands by his decision to reopen the state, despite criticism from political foes and even allies such as President Donald Trump.

“I mean, people are not going to do that, No. 1,” Kemp said. “No. 2, many people are going to lose their home, or the dwelling that they’re renting, and they won’t have anywhere to shelter in place. So for all those people that are saying all those things, they’re also not dealing with the reality of what working Georgians are having to deal with.”

Kemp has authorized the opening of bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, gyms, salons, and movie theaters; vacation rentals are slated to open this weekend. Kemp said Georgia’s drastic state budget situation is the push to restart the economy.

The economy is the driving force many governors of Southern states cite as reason for reopening. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said the virus will continue to spread and still presents a serious threat, but residents want to get back to work.

“We have become highly educated and informed on what we’re dealing with and that is one of the main things and, also, the willingness to comply of the people in our state,” McMaster said. “Those are the things that have allowed us to move back into where we want to be in our economy.”

Several Black faith and civil rights groups wrote a joint letter to publicly voice their disapproval of states reopening prematurely, saying these actions demonstrate reckless disregard for the health and life of Black residents, especially in states with significant Black populations.

Sherrilyn Ifill, one of the letter’s authors, spoke to NPR about the message they want to send to Black communities.

“Governor Kemp in Georgia and other governors made the decision that they would begin to reopen their states,” said Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “We saw, of course, last week that even Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves reversed himself as the numbers began to rise in Mississippi. But a number of governors, including in Florida and Georgia, have insisted on reopening.

“This has become a kind of savage and feral contest between politics and public health, and African Americans are caught in the middle,” she said, adding that such decisions are life-or-death matters for many African Americans who face everyday health disparities and underlying health conditions.

Ifill said she believes the safety of African Americans during this pandemic is a civil rights issue and urges them to stay home.

“We regard this pandemic as a grave threat to the health and life of our people, and as a threat to the integrity and vitality of the communities we are privileged to serve,” she said. “For these reasons, we encourage all Black churches and businesses to remain closed during this critical period.”

Sarafina Wright –Washington Informer Staff Writer

Sarafina Wright is a staff writer at the Washington Informer where she covers business, community events, education, health and politics. She also serves as the editor-in-chief of the WI Bridge, the Informer’s...

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