How fast is too fast? Delaware officials, stakeholders divided how to reopen amid pandemic

The News Journal | by Sarah Gamard

Even as Delaware eases its coronavirus restrictions, Gov. John Carney is still facing pressure from Republican officials and business interest groups who want a faster and more rigorous reopening.

Delaware’s business-friendly reputation isn’t meshing well with the state of emergency closures meant to mitigate the spread of the deadly coronavirus — especially as nearby states are lifting some of their restrictions sooner. Criticism of the administration’s reopening strategies has shed light on a growing political divide ahead of the 2020 elections over how Delaware is handling the pandemic.

And as Delawareans suffer from quarantine fatigue and debilitating financial losses, many have become skeptical and even defiant over whether the state of emergency restrictions are still necessary.

“There’s still an awful lot of things that just don’t still make sense,” said Bob Older, president of the Delaware Small Business Chamber, one of the groups pushing the governor to speed up the reopening process. “Why we’ve had to wait all this extra time is still a little bit beyond me.”

The Carney administration doesn’t want to reopen too quickly to avoid a new spike in cases. Instead, Delaware is reopening in phases under a plan based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the White House.

On Monday, the first phase begins with businesses such as restaurants, retail stores and casinos allowing a limited number of people through their doors under strict social distancing guidelines. Restaurants can also apply for outdoor seating.

Even before Monday, the governor has lifted other restrictions. He reopened beaches for Memorial Day Weekend and last week announced that he’s lifting the stay-at-home order on Monday. Outdoor gatherings of up to 250 people will be allowed in the coming week as long as people socially distance.

And while business interest groups and members of the Republican minority party consider the recent moves a good start, some Democrats are less on board.

“Governor Carney, at this moment in time, is even moving too quickly for me,” said Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark. “Shouldn’t we be sticking to a more rigorous plan?”

Kowalko said he worries that there’s a “divide between money interests and science” in Delaware’s response to the pandemic. He said he’s heard from half a dozen other Democratic lawmakers who worry the state is reopening too quickly.

“There is an abnormal pressure that is being brought to bear on the governor, and I don’t know his reasons to respond to it,” Kowalko said. “But I watch his actions, and I feel that I don’t see a justification for crowds of 250.”

Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, believes the governor has acted in good faith and has been well informed, and thinks Delaware has enough resources to prepare itself in case the state does face consequences for reopening too quickly. But he thinks the administration needs to better prepare the public that the reopening could be reversed if the virus rears its head again.

“There is certainly a possibility that’s going to happen this summer, and I don’t think we’ve laid the groundwork for that well enough,” Baumbach said. “We could have greater restrictions this winter because there is always the risk that the disease is going to come back worse this winter. … It has to be led from (Carney’s) office, that communication effort. It’s going to need to ramp up significantly.”

Reopening follows other states

Baumbach said that most of his constituents he’s heard from in the Newark area are worried that the economy is reopening too quickly.

And according to a recent national survey, they aren’t alone. The Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Project found that nearly three-fourths of Americans are more worried about social distancing measures being loosened too quickly than they are about the country not reopening quickly enough.

Still, states are reopening across the country and some are doing it much more aggressively than Delaware. Texas, for example, allowed restaurants and retailers to serve people on limited capacity at the start of May. Two weeks later, the state reported its highest single-day increase of new cases, according to USA Today.

The federal government has begun urging states to reopen where possible. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House health advisor and top U.S. infectious disease expert, told CNBC in late May that “now is the time” to begin to seriously consider reopening the economy. Fauci also said that stay-at-home orders could cause “irreparable damage” if they go on for too long.

Delaware has the 11th highest reported COVID-19 death rate of states in the country, not including Washington, D.C., according to a state-by-state analysis from The New York Times.

Maryland, which the data show has the 10th highest death rate, lifted its stay-at-home order in mid-May and has let businesses to reopen at half capacity while maintaining social distancing guidelines. Ocean City opened its beaches weeks ahead of Sussex County, though Carney said Monday that Ocean City’s reopening “looks like a way not to do things” after seeing photos of the large crowds over the weekend.

Pennsylvania, which has an even higher death rate than Delaware or Maryland, is reopening the state on a per-county basis depending on the severity of the spread in each county. More than a dozen of the state’s counties went into a “green” phase on Friday, meaning the end of stay-at-home orders and business closures for those areas.

Carney says reopening based on science, not pressure

The governor isn’t succumbing to pressure from outside groups or officials from across the aisle, said Carney spokesman Jonathan Starkey. Instead, Delawareans have succeeded in flattening the curve, and coronavirus hospitalizations are at their lowest level since mid-April — a key sign for reopening, according to the administration.

At his Friday press briefing, Carney said he’s facing “more pointed and lively” questions about reopening as the pandemic trudges on. He acknowledged that officials worry he’s moving too quickly to reopen, while business leaders say he’s not moving fast enough.

“History will tell,” Carney said.

Carney has based his reopening timeline on guidance from federal and state public health officials. But he’s also been in talks with restaurant and business groups to get their input on how to reopen gradually. Starkey said the governor is not “tied to a phased reopening” if some parts of the economy can reopen safely beforehand.

“We won’t wait for a phased approach to reopen businesses if it’s safe to reopen businesses,” Starkey said, adding that the governor needs to get the green light from public health experts before making sweeping reopening decisions. “The response has been guided by the science since day one, and will continue to be guided by the science.”

The phased plan does call for some sweeping and expensive measures. The state in May quadrupled its testing capacity to reach 80,000 residents per month. The goal is to make the tests more widely available for populations deemed especially vulnerable including the poor, the elderly and African-Americans.

Delaware has started hiring hundreds of contact tracers who will be trained to notify everyone whom a sick person came in contact with to make sure they self-isolate. The administration says those measures, along with a drop in coronavirus-related hospitalizations, are needed in order to reopen.

The administration was originally looking primarily at a drop in just positive cases ahead of Phase 1, but Carney expects the increased testing to lead to a spike in new cases. Because of that, Starkey said, positive test results alone aren’t a good indicator of the virus’ current threat level. As of Friday, 9,236 people have tested positive for the virus and 356 people have died from it.

Time to get back to ‘normalcy’

Private interest groups like the Small Business Chamber have publicly criticized the plan for being too slow and inconsistent. The Delaware Restaurant Association, meanwhile, wants all restaurants to be able to operate at full capacity by the second phase that doesn’t have a scheduled start date, though it’s unclear if the governor will grant that wish.

A faction of Republicans are also calling on Carney to lift restrictions through multiple public letters outlining their wishes for a faster reopening. Those lawmakers and the business interest groups are likely to keep pressuring the administration.

According to Carney’s administration, residents were not following social distancing recommendations in March, so the state replaced those recommendations with enforceable restrictions such as beach closures. At the start of May, hundreds of protesters who showed up in Dover and Wilmington to denounce the state of emergency did not practice social distancing or wear masks. At least three Republican senators attended those protests.

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