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In The Gulf Coast, Responses To Coronavirus Outbreak Vary Greatly By State


Louisiana has emerged as a hotspot for the spread of the coronavirus with nearly 2,000 cases and more than 60 reported deaths. The state is imposing strict limitations on movement and economic activity, but neighboring Gulf Coast states are taking a more measured approach. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: In a televised address this week, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards warned the crisis has overwhelmed Louisiana's ability to combat the spread of the disease and care for the sick.


JOHN BEL EDWARDS: Our rate of growth is faster than any state in the country or any country in the world for that matter. And I know that that's unbelievable to hear. It's hard to hear, but it's true.

ELLIOTT: Edwards has ordered residents to stay put.


BEL EDWARDS: And listen. I know this is completely the opposite of what we're used to and how we live in Louisiana. It's a major adjustment, but it is necessary. Stay home. Stop the spread. Save lives.

ELLIOTT: His message is in sharp contrast to neighboring Mississippi.


TATE REEVES: We're not going to make rash decisions simply because some other states decide to do things.

ELLIOTT: That's Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves. He's been in self-isolation in the governor's mansion since returning from a trip to Spain on March 13. He's been answering coronavirus questions via live chats on Facebook.


REEVES: Eric Worth (ph) says, China did a lockdown, and it was good for them. Why can't Mississippi? Well, Eric, I will tell you that Mississippi is never going to be China.

ELLIOTT: A conservative, free-market Republican, Reeves says he didn't want to take actions that would do more harm than good. He closed public schools and, yesterday, issued an executive order limiting nonessential gatherings to 10 people and suspending in-restaurant dining. Other directives remain voluntary.


REEVES: You must stay home as much as you can. Do not go out if you can possibly avoid it.

ELLIOTT: That's not enough for some Mississippi cities. Oxford and Tupelo, for instance, have ordered residents to stay home.

JASON SHELTON: We're trying to save lives.

ELLIOTT: Jason Shelton is the Democratic mayor of Tupelo.

SHELTON: Some people in leadership, some people in media, unfortunately, called this a hoax and encouraged people not to take it seriously. And that's still lingering.

ELLIOTT: Mississippi's state health officer acknowledged this week that people are still congregating en masse for weddings, funerals and church services. In a region where people often work across state lines or have family in a neighboring state, medical experts say the different messages can confound efforts to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus. Still, governors have been reluctant to order statewide lockdowns. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has called for surgical approaches tailored to different regions of the state. In Alabama, Birmingham has issued a shelter-in-place order. But Republican Gov. Kay Ivey says a statewide lockdown is not coming.

KAY IVEY: The safety and well-being of Alabamians is paramount. However, I agree with President Trump, who thinks that a healthy and vital economy is just as essential to our quality of life.

REGINA BENJAMIN: It would be very short-sighted of us to try to come back to economic recovery and then people start getting sick again. Then we'd be back in the same place we've been, that we are.

ELLIOTT: Alabama physician and former U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin says borders don't really matter with the coronavirus and has an analogy the Gulf states should understand.

BENJAMIN: It's like having a Category 4 hurricane that has entered into the Gulf of Mexico.

ELLIOTT: She says it's not a matter of if it will make landfall but when and how strong.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.

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