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Cities Hard Hit By Coronavirus Crisis Consider Rolling Back Reopenings

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Shutting economies down during a pandemic - it hit so many communities hard. That is why states have kept trying to reopen. But coronavirus cases are surging in a lot of places, and so many leaders are considering rolling back these reopenings, knowing it could hit their businesses and economies again. We're going to visit three cities going through this this morning. Health reporter Will Stone is in Seattle, WBEZ's Monica Eng is in Chicago, and WABE's Emma Hurt is in Atlanta. Thank you all for being here.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Good to be here.

MONICA ENG, BYLINE: Thank you.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Emma, I want to start with you in Georgia because there has been so much disagreement over this. I mean, the governor sued the mayor of Atlanta over her recommendation to roll the city back to phase one, also over her mask mandate. Talk about this. What is at the heart of this debate?

HURT: Right. I mean, while everyone's talking about masks - and, yes, the governor has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate, and cities like Atlanta have issued their own anyway - really, the larger trigger for the lawsuit was, as you said, the mayor recommending that Atlanta businesses move back to phase one. So keep in mind that the governor's coronavirus order was designed to supersede all local regulations, stronger or weaker. And Governor Kemp is suing because he says the mayor doing this is creating an economic risk to businesses that are confused about who they listen to, and he's saying, we just can't have these kinds of regulatory discrepancies, of course, including the mask mandates as well.

GREENE: Will, let me go to you in Seattle. I mean, Seattle I think is the city we all think about as being hit hard so early and then seeming to handle things fairly well in terms of getting a handle on this pandemic. What is the state of things now?

STONE: That's right. Actually, just six months ago, Washington detected the first case of coronavirus in the U.S., and we had this big wave of hospitalizations in the spring. Then the situation mostly stabilized, at least in the Seattle metro area. And now the virus is back. It's spreading all over the place, including around Seattle. The case counts are high, and health officials are using terms like explosive growth. And much of that is linked to younger adults getting infected. It appears that social gatherings are a major driver. And the most recent modeling is pretty ominous. It finds Washington is in the early stages of an exponential statewide outbreak with very little chance of being reversed without some other major action.

GREENE: Monica, let me go to you in Chicago. I mean, things have been, generally, at least comparatively, better there - right? - in terms of infections. But the mayor, Lori Lightfoot, is announcing some reopening rollbacks, particularly bars, other places. Why is that?

ENG: Well, we've also seen a real growth in cases among young people 18 to 29. And last week, we jumped into what's called a high incidence state - more than 200 cases a day on a seven-day rolling average. So now bars with no food can't have folks indoors right when baseball season is starting up this weekend. Beauty salons can't do stuff like facials. Fitness classes have to be smaller. And there's still technically no swimming on Chicago's gorgeous beaches and lakefront.

GREENE: But this is still - we're talking about - a smaller rollback in Chicago. But it sounds like both the mayor, the governor all saying, we're going to watch these numbers really closely to see if we have to do more. So what exactly are they trying to keep track of?

ENG: Well, the mayor, you know, has said - you know, both of them have said, we are really going to be tough on this. The mayor's chastised businesses who flout the rules, saying, you know, I won't just stop the car; I will kick you out and make you walk home. So they want to, you know, let people know that tougher restrictions are coming if we do not do better.

So they're looking closely at things like positivity rates, you know, how many people have it in relation to those tested, hospitalizations, hospital bed availability, ICU availability, deaths. I mean, even though we've had a mask requirement since May 1, not every single person is following it all the time anymore, so the governor and mayor are reminding folks, we have to wear it every time we leave the house and we're not around people we live with. So they're looking closely at those, and so we could see more rollbacks if things don't stay steady.

GREENE: Let's just talk about what life feels like in some of your cities. Will, Seattle - I mean, as we said, there was an early shutdown. Does the region feel open now compared to where it was, and where might things be headed?

STONE: The region still feels very much in a lockdown kind of mindset. There are still restrictions. Restaurants are allowed to do in-person dining, but that's limited. Now, that said, you do see lots more cars on the road. People are outside. They're milling around, and they're enjoying the nice weather. And I asked Hilary Godwin about this - you know, why the increase now in a place like Seattle? Godwin is the dean of the University of Washington's School of Public Health.

HILARY GODWIN: In terms of policies, we seem to have been doing the right things. It really seems to be more that people are just sort of easing up on their own efforts to contain the virus and are starting to move around a little bit more, to engage more in terms of socialization.

STONE: So a lot of this comes down to mobility. And Godwin says there may be a middle ground, you know, where you can close down restaurants but don't go into a full lockdown. But the fact is, this comes down to compliance. And a lot of the things we can do - like a statewide mask mandate - the governor has already done that, and he's also halted any further reopening of the state at the moment.

GREENE: Emma, tell me more about the state of Georgia and what life is like and could be like going forward. It's one of those states that is seeing a real surge right now, although the governor is not taking aggressive action with new restrictions, like we've seen elsewhere.

HURT: Yeah. I mean, our hospitalization rate right now is the highest that it's been, and we got news yesterday our largest hospital is at capacity. But Governor Kemp is still making the same argument that he's been making throughout the pandemic, that he's got to balance Georgians' physical health with their financial health, and rolling back restrictions can endanger the latter, basically. You know, if people can't afford their rent, where can they shelter in place if they get sick? He made this point at a press conference last week about protecting the lives and livelihoods of Georgians.

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BRIAN KEMP: We can fight both those battles. I personally don't believe we need a mask mandate to do that. I agree everybody should be wearing a mask. I'm urging them to do that. But I'm also urging them to do the other things that we've had for months now that nobody's enforcing at the local level.

HURT: And when you talk about life on the ground, I mean, we've got our localities and our state government really in disagreement here. Kemp is arguing that localities should do a better job of enforcing what's already in the order, like ban gatherings over 50. And the counterargument that some cities are making is the order doesn't go far enough.

GREENE: All right, learning about life in three parts of the country that are facing this moment, whether to roll back reopenings, even if it's going to hit the economies hard, as we see this surge in coronavirus cases in different parts of the United States. We heard from health reporter Will Stone in Seattle, WABE's Emma Hurt in Atlanta and WBEZ's Monica Eng in Chicago. Thanks to all of you for doing this.

STONE: Thank you.

ENG: Thank you.

HURT: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "WOES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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