COVID-19: Are Colorado, Other Early Reopening States Irresponsible?

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster at an April 22 news conference.
South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster at an April 22 news conference. YouTube
During his April 22 press conference about COVID-19, Governor Jared Polis took pains to portray the April 26 end of the state's stay-at-home order as responsible — an understandable tactic, given that Colorado is currently being compared to Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee, three other early lockdown lifters whose approach has been widely derided by public-health officials and political pundits across the country.

But is Colorado's approach (dubbed "safer at home") any less reckless than those of this trio? Based on a comparison of the plans announced to date by the governors in all four states, the answer is a qualified yes. But the differences are a matter of degrees.

Here's a state-by-state breakdown.


The plan being rolled out by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp is the most controversial among this quartet, in part because of the novel coronavirus's significant impact in his state to date. The latest statistics from the Georgia Department of Public Health show 21,102 confirmed cases, 4,018 hospitalizations and 846 deaths. These figures are significantly higher than those in Colorado, where the death toll as of 4 p.m. on April 22 stands at 508, along with 10,878 positive cases — although Georgia's population, estimated at around 10.6 million, is nearly double Colorado's 5.8 million.

But whereas Polis is allowing many non-critical businesses to reopen in early May if they conform to new, stricter guidelines related to social distancing and use of masks, and is holding off on allowing on-site service at restaurants and operations at bars, clubs, theaters and the like, Kemp is basically switching on the green light for pretty much everyone.

Tomorrow, April 24, bowling alleys, salons, nail shops, massage therapists and tattoo parlors in Georgia can get back to business as long as they obey guidelines about social distancing and hygiene and monitor the health of employees; a temperature of more than 100.4 is the threshold. On Monday, April 27, restaurants and movie theaters can do likewise, though they must limit gatherings to fewer than ten in any one location.

South Carolina

While Georgia is on the cusp of reopening, South Carolina has already done so. Governor Henry McMaster allowed access to beaches and other locations related to boating on Monday, April 20. The next day, April 21, he gave the okay to a wide range of retail outlets, including stores peddling furniture, books, crafts, music supplies, sporting goods, clothing, shoes, furniture, jewelry, luggage, flowers and more. Even flea markets have been approved.

Still, restrictions are strict, at least on paper. Outlets are warned against allowing more than five customers per 1,000 square feet, and they're not supposed to exceed 20 percent of their usual capacity.

As for South Carolina's COVID-19 data, the most recent report shows 4,761 positive cases and 140 deaths. Many health experts fear both of these numbers will grow in a significant way, owing to McMaster's actions.


Like South Carolina, Tennessee has fewer positive COVID-19 cases (7,842) and deaths (166) through April 22 than does Colorado. Meanwhile, Governor Bill Lee points to "a steady decline in the growth rate" of the virus for at least nineteen days — a trend that he's cited as a reason for reopening.

In doing so, Lee is using the same language as Polis: His state is shifting from stay-at-home to "safer at home," too. But Tennessee is moving forward in a simpler fashion than is Colorado; Lee has chosen to simply allow his previous order to expire on April 30. That means the vast majority of businesses in 89 of the 95 counties in Tennessee can unlock their doors if they agree to comply with various safety guidelines established by his state's health department.

The other six counties in question — Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Madison, Shelby and Sullivan — are among Tennessee's most populous, and they're being allowed to go their own way. Health departments in cities there can determine their own reopening timetable, as can municipalities in Colorado, such as Denver.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts