Gov. Tate Reeves answers questions during a press conference concerning the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite two of the last four days showing the highest daily COVID-19 case counts to date, Gov. Tate Reeves announced Monday he is further reopening the Mississippi economy.

Restaurants can begin Thursday serving in-house meals under strict guidelines, Reeves announced Monday afternoon during his daily news conference. The governor also is re-opening state and local parks.

The governor said Friday that he had planned to announce further reopenings that day, but opted not to after the Department of Health reported 397 coronavirus cases and 20 deaths on Friday. Those numbers represent the most cases on a single day since the coronavirus arrived in the state.

Then on Saturday and Sunday the number of new cases reported were significantly lower. On Monday, though, the Department of Health reported  327 new cases – the second most ever on a single day – and seven deaths.

Just before the Reeves news conference on Monday, on social media LouAnn Wodward, vice chancellor for the University of Mississippi and head of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said, “The number of COVID-19 positive patients, hospitalizations and deaths are increasing. We have not hit our peak. We are not on the other side of this. Stay safe Mississippi.”

State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs, who participated in the news conference with Reeves, said looking at data over a period of time it appears the state’s cases and hospitalization rates are no longer increasing and that a plateau had been reached. The daily reports are impacted in part by the number of tests performed and when those test results are reported, Reeves said.

But while some metrics, like ICU and ventilator use have been stable, overall hospitalizations have been steadily growing, both daily and when looked at it on a rolling weekly average.

Dobbs and Reeves stressed that Mississippians still must practice social distancing, wear a mask in public, stay six feet apart and avoid groups of more than 10.

Reeves said he is trying to balance the safety of the state’s citizens with the state’s economy. He said the closure of businesses also is having a devastating impact on the state.

“I don’t want to wait if there are steps that we believe we can safely take now to ease the burden on Mississippians fighting this virus,” Reeves said. “There are thousands around the state that are set to close their doors for good. They cannot hold on much longer. I hope that this will not only be some much-needed relief for those restaurant employees but also provide for some joy for the people of Mississippi.”

Under the new order, which goes into effect Thursday, Reeves said he unfortunately could not reopen barbershops and hair salons because he said health care experts could not find a safe way to do so. While Reeves did not address the issue at the news conference, it appears the order also does not allow for the reopening of gyms, theaters, other entertainment venues and some other activities like nail salons.

The order Reeves announced Monday amends an April 24 “safer-at-home order” that opened most retail establishments within the restraints of social distancing and other limitations, but did not reopen in-house dining at restaurants. Under the amendment Reeves announced Monday, restaurant capacity will be limited to 50 percent of maximum capacity and employees must wear masks and undergo safety training.

The safer-at-home order is set to expire at 8 a.m. Monday. Prior to the safer- at-home order, the state was under a much stricter shelter-in-place order for three weeks.

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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.