Gov. Tate Reeves speaks to media about his shelter-in-place order for Lauderdale County during a press conference at the State of Mississippi Woolfolk Building in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Gov. Tate Reeves told hundreds of business leaders on Wednesday that his main regret about his handling COVID-19 is that he didn’t deem all businesses essential and let them remain open during the height of the pandemic.

Reeves quoted William Faulkner as he bemoaned all the natural and man-made disasters he’s had to “endure” since he took office in 2020, including the pandemic, flooding and ice storms, a prison death and overcrowding crisis and the largest government embezzlement case in state history. He addressed about 800 members of the Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce, in its annual meeting — the first large in-person gathering MEC has hosted since the pandemic.

“The biggest regret I had from 2020, and I did it because I believed it was the right thing to do to protect our economy from overzealous local elected officials, we worked with the Trump administration and made the decision to define some businesses as essential,” Reeves said. “It turns out about 80% or 85% of all businesses were defined as essential during that time, but as I look back on it I realize that I made a mistake, because the fact of the matter is that every single business in Mississippi is essential.”

After his speech, Reeves demurred on whether he regretted issuing any shut-down or other orders to slow the disease’s spread, but said that on whole, Mississippi’s per capita COVID-19 rates were on par with the rest of the nation, “even though we had little restrictions.” He said, “We got more right than we got wrong.”

But with 10,736 COVID-19 infections per 100,000 residents, Mississippi has the 21st highest infection rate in the country. Mississippi’s vaccination rate is the lowest in the country, although Reeves did not mention vaccination efforts in his speech.

“I think anybody in America can look back and nitpick decisions that were made,” Reeves said after his speech.

Reeves in his speech quoted author Donna Tartt: “‘Sometimes you can do all the right things and not succeed. And that’s a hard lesson of reality.'”

“I know that we made every decision based upon the data that we had at that time, but I also know that every single decision did not turn out exactly the way we wanted it to,” Reeves said.

Reeves told business leaders that despite the pandemic, new capital investment in Mississippi for 2020 reached $1.7 billion, far above the 10-year average of $900 million a year. He also vowed that the state’s revamped workforce training program, Accelerate Mississippi, will be a “game changer” for state business development.

MEC’s outgoing Chairman Anthony Wilson, president of Mississippi Power, thanked Reeves for allowing business leaders to help with pandemic policy decisions and said, “You have been a consistent supporter of the business community.”

Wilson noted that MEC’s first large in-person gathering since the pandemic included another first — its stage was under a huge new Mississippi state flag, without the divisive Confederate battle emblem of the state’s old flag. MEC helped pushed lawmakers to remove the old flag.

“Without a doubt, taking down the controversial state flag was a defining moment for our state,” Wilson said. He said the state has “removed a significant impediment” to growth and prosperity by changing the flag.

MEC’s incoming chairman is Retired Maj. Gen. Augustus “Leon” Collins, former state adjutant general over the state Army and Air National Guard, and the first Black person to obtain general officer rank in the Mississippi National Guard. Collins is now CEO of MINACT Inc., a workforce training and management company.

Collins asked the large crowd to “breathe” after he took the stage, and noted “how great it is to do that without a mask over our faces.”

“I think it’s a new day and we have an opportunity for a new beginning here in Mississippi,” Collins said.

Mississippi Today reporter Will Stribling contributed to this report.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.