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Western States Are Planning To Reopen Under The Pressure Of Right-Wing Groups


How soon businesses across the U.S. can reopen, of course, depends on where they are. We're going to hear from three other parts of the country now, each with a different approach to reopening. We have on the line with us Victoria Hansen of South Carolina Public Radio, North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann in New York and NPR's Kirk Siegler in Boise, Idaho.

Hey to all three of you.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey there, Ailsa.



CHANG: Victoria, let's start with you. South Carolina was one of the first states to announce reopening plans. What does that plan look like right now?

HANSEN: Well, to be very clear, this is a partial reopening. Beaches and businesses once considered nonessential - they have been allowed to reopen. The governor did give coastal towns, though, the choice of whether or not to reopen their beaches. And despite some of the pictures people might see from North Myrtle Beach - excuse me - showing crowded shores, most communities have kept their beaches closed. As for the cities across the state, they didn't have a choice. Under the governor's order, they have to allow businesses to reopen if they want to.

CHANG: OK. And I understand that you have been talking to business owners in Charleston. What are they telling you?

HANSEN: Well, yeah, many local business owners - they're very eager to reopen, but it's kind of surreal. They're wearing masks behind the cash registers. They've put out hand sanitizer in the front of the stores, and they're even going out and limiting the number of customers allowed in. Sometimes, it's just five people at a time. But some of the workers I spoke with - they're not so sure about all this. They're grateful for the paycheck, but some say they feel a bit exposed. In fact, I spoke with Brent Ferguson (ph). He's an assistant manager at Half-Moon Outfitters. That's an outdoor clothing and sporting goods store.

BRENT FERGUSON: There's still not a vaccine. We technically still haven't flattened this curve out. South Carolina's been fortunate, you know, compared to other states, it sounds like. But we just don't feel quite out of the woods yet.

HANSEN: Yeah. And much of downtown Charleston still looks like a ghost town, with the majority of businesses not reopening. Restaurants and bars - they are still very much closed. Hotel occupancy is way down. And of course, this is a city that relies heavily on tourism.

CHANG: Right. OK, that is the view from South Carolina. Let's turn to New York now. Brian Mann, you have been closely watching Gov. Andrew Cuomo's daily briefings. Tell us what he said today about reopening the state.

MANN: Yeah, so what Cuomo's talking about is gradually relaxing restrictions, letting some construction and factory workers get back on the job around May 15.


ANDREW CUOMO: We're going to turn the valve on reopening, turn it a little bit, start to reopen. And then you watch the dials. What are the dials? - hospitalization rate, the infection rate.

MANN: Now, I should say, Ailsa, there's no talk here of restaurants or retail getting back to normal yet. And the governor says if there's an uptick of COVID-19 cases, New York will tighten up again.

One interesting idea here is that upstate towns and cities that haven't seen as many sick people as New York City - they might actually be able to relax social distancing rules sooner. The problem Cuomo has acknowledged, though, is that this approach might mean people leaving hotspots in New York and traveling to places as they reopen. The fear is that that could create new hotspots, so we're watching for details of how that regional process might be managed.

CHANG: Absolutely. OK. Well, to take this more measured approach that he's describing, Cuomo has said that he will need help from President Trump, from Congress. What did he mean by that?

MANN: Yeah, so New York is basically broke because of the economic hit from COVID-19. And to keep all these workers home while we test the waters with gradual reopening, Cuomo's going to need billions of dollars from Washington to pay unemployment checks. That kind of aid is not a sure thing. Just today the president tweeted that he's skeptical of bailing out states - those are his words - states that are led by these Democratic governors.

CHANG: Well, let's go to Idaho, which is, you know, a mostly rural state - very different from New York in that sense. Kirk Siegler, tell us what is going on there.

SIEGLER: Well, Ailsa, it's been interesting to watch Idaho's Republican governor, quite honestly - Gov. Brad Little - respond to pressure that he's been getting from the far right, some in his own party and others from antigovernment militias. Now, Little isn't exactly a liberal. The few times he's been forced to respond, he's mostly dismissed the protests and a few acts of defiance by a few business owners of his statewide stay-at-home order, which expires this week. And he's moving to a phased one - reopening. He's saying that these acts - these defiant people are endangering other Idahoans. He's just said there isn't enough testing in this state yet to broadly reopen.

And Ailsa, in this sense, he's more in line with the governors on the West Coast than you might expect him to be in this region, say, Utah or Nebraska nearby - states that have not even implemented statewide closures. And the mostly far-right protests we've seen across the rural northwest so far, I'd say, have been pretty fringe. I've been to two - one, a few dozen; another, a few hundred. It was bigger. But, you know, it's safe to say that hundreds of thousands of people weren't there and otherwise were staying at home and following the orders. You know, I do think the far right is trying to capitalize on - there is a growing sense of frustration you see in a rural state like this in some smaller towns, where people feel like this virus is still a city problem; it's far away. And, you know, they may not know anyone directly affected yet or who's sick.

CHANG: So interesting - well, if we can just stay in the West for a moment, Kirk, you know, the governors of Colorado and Nevada said today that they're going to be joining a pact with Washington state and California. I'm curious - how much agreement is there among these Western states over how to actually go about the reopening?

SIEGLER: Yeah. You know, this is a hard question to actually answer 'cause this isn't a case where everything just fits neatly, you know, along partisan lines or you can kind of - you put everything in a box. You've got the Democratic governors of Colorado and Montana actually doing a far faster reopening than it would appear here in Republican-led Idaho or next door in Oregon. And sometimes, the plans can vary even within the states and within the regions within the states. You know, I'd say if there is some agreement, it's that there's a broad concern that if we open up too quick, then the governors may have to shut it all back down again if that dreaded second wave were to come. And they're afraid that the economic fallout could be worse, not to mention the health concerns. I mean, you just have to look at what's happening right now in some parts of the rural West anyway - on Indian reservations and in the tourism and ski counties like Blaine County, Idaho, and Sun Valley - to know just how bad things could still get here.

CHANG: All right. That was NPR's Kirk Siegler in Boise, Idaho, Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio in New York and Victoria Hansen at South Carolina Public Radio.

Thanks to all three of you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.
Brian Mann (NCPR)