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Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said Tuesday that he is tightening regulations in parts of the state seeing the fastest spread of the new coronavirus.
The target area is seven largely rural counties in the east central part of the state: Attala, Leake, Scott, Jasper, Neshoba, Newton and Lauderdale. Reeves said authorities are seeing a rapid increase in cases relative to their populations.
While Reeves previously suggested people wear masks in public, his new executive order makes that mandatory in some situations in the seven counties. Masks must be worn by people at outdoor events such as flea markets or auctions, and by those shopping inside retail businesses such as grocery stores. The new order also requires businesses to provide masks for their employees in retail settings, and it requires the employees to wear the masks while working.
In addition, businesses are required to screen employees for COVID-19 symptoms at the start of each shift, to provide hand sanitizer and ensure employees remain at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart wherever possible. Those who cannot maintain that distance must wear a mask while working, and the mask must be sanitized or replaced daily.
Reeves announced the new restrictions for the seven counties even as he has spent the last several days lifting some statewide limits by allowing the reopening of restaurants, barbershops, hair salons and gyms; those establishments must limit customers and take other precautions.
Poultry processing plants employ hundreds of people in the areas affected by Reeves’s new order. Although meat-packing plants in other parts of the U.S. are acknowledged hot spots for the highly contagious virus, Republican Reeves has been reluctant to say the virus might be transmitted in Mississippi poultry plants.
In response to questions Tuesday, Reeves repeated what he has said before — that after talking with members of the White House coronavirus task force, he believes the virus might be spreading in communal housing where some poultry plant workers live, or in the vans that take them to and from work.
“I don’t know that we have significant evidence that there has been significant transmission inside the plants,” Reeves said.
The state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said Tuesday that executives at Sanderson Farms, one of the state’s largest poultry processors, called him in early March — before Mississippi had any confirmed cases of COVID-19 — to talk about safety.
Dobbs said Health Department employees are working to trace how the virus is transmitted, particularly in the hardest-hit counties. Speaking of the seven counties under additional restrictions, Dobbs said: “Even though there is a significant number of individuals who work in the poultry industry, the majority of cases in those counties do not work in poultry.”
Mississippi legislators were at the Capitol on Tuesday discussing how the state might spend $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds.
The state Health Department said Tuesday that Mississippi — with a population of about 3 million — had at least 9,908 confirmed cases and 457 deaths from the coronavirus as of Monday evening. That was an increase of 234 cases and 22 deaths from numbers the department reported the previous day; seven of the 22 deaths occurred between April 25 and May 3 but were in the new report because of a delay in the Health Department receiving information from death certificates.
The number of coronavirus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
The Health Department said Tuesday that at least 96,400 coronavirus tests had been conducted in Mississippi as of Monday. The department said at least 1,239 cases of the virus had been confirmed in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, with at least 208 virus-related deaths in those facilities.