Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said the governor’s executive order will give public health officials time to prepare for the peak in number of coronavirus cases.

Gov. Tate Reeves, who for days has resisted calls to enact a shelter-in-place order to combat COVID -19, finally said Wednesday afternoon that now is the time to enact such a mandate to give state officials and medical providers time to collect the resources to fight the virus and to give public health officials time to attempt to curb its spread.

During a 90-minute news conference in a near vacant state office building, he signed the order mandating statewide that people remain at home until April 20 unless going out for essential services, such as buying groceries. Under the order, parks will be closed, but walking trails will remain open where people can exercise if they are careful to not gather in groups and stay at least 6 feet a part.

“We believe this is the right tool at the right time to save lives,” said Reeves, who said he began consulting Tuesday night with health care experts, such as state Health Care Officer Thomas Dobbs, about whether they should put the statewide order in place. The order comes on the heels of enacting a similar order for Lauderdale County in east Mississippi on Tuesday.

Dobbs, who attended the news conference, said Reeves’ executive order will give public health officials time to prepare for the peak – perhaps later this month – in terms of number of coronavirus cases in the state and give them time to continue their strategy of aggressively quarantining those who have been infected and those who have been exposed.

He said right now the number of intensive care beds and ventilators in the state was adequate, but “we know we will have more coronavirus cases and we will have more deaths.”

In terms of resources, hospital capacity and ventilators, Dobbs said, “It is not today we are worried about. It is the next week and the next.”

As of Wednesday morning, the state Department of Health was reporting 1,073 cases of coronavirus and 22 deaths.

Reeves and Dobbs said infections in nursing homes are becoming more of a problem. Despite Reeves’ previous orders asking people not meet in groups of 10 or more, those gatherings still were occurring at weddings, funerals and just among people participating in recreation activities.

Reeves said Wednesday’s executive order will be enforced by both state and local law enforcement, though he said he anticipates that people would be asked to disperse instead of being immediately arrested.

Reeves said he informed both House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann of his decision earlier in the day.

Gunn, who attended the news conference as a show of support, said, “We do not want to be in a situation where we have not done everything we can possibly do to protect our citizens.”

Hosemann released a statement, saying “We need to heed and support Gov. Reeves’ executive order to shelter in place until April 20.  We need to work together to take care of our most vulnerable citizens by listening to our health care professionals and traveling outside of our homes only when necessary.”

Reeves had faced criticism for resisting earlier calls for a shelter-in-place order. Among those critical of Reeves’ reluctance was Ray Mabus, former governor Secretary of the Navy. 

Reeves said for “75 to 80 percent” of the population the executive order will not change their lives. They already are essentially sheltering at home under previous orders and recommendations. Grocery stores and pharmacies will remain open. And restaurants can continue to provide take-out and delivery services.

Reeves was asked several questions about what activities will be impacted by the order.

In essence, clothing and department stores would be closed as would theaters, gyms, parks, lakes and other bodies of water, amusement parks, museums and the like.

But Reeves acknowledged that in some instances whether a business should stay open could be debatable. For instance, Reeves said he could see instances when construction work should continue, but in other instances where it should not. And he said stores that sell computer equipment and phones could be considered essential, especially now when schools and universities and colleges are relying on distance learning.

Reeves said if a person had to ask if his or her business was essential, it probably was not.

Dobbs said additional guidance on day care facilities would be forthcoming.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.