ELGIN, SOUTH CAROLINA: With South Carolina’s first pandemic hot spot just a short jaunt up the highway, Johellen Lee hadn’t been out for anything but groceries for nearly a month.
“I looked like a hag,” she said. So she headed to see her best friend and hair stylist Erica Nealy at her beauty salon in Elgin — one of the businesses that local and state governments across the South are arguing about whether to keep open as they seek to limit the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
“This job is essential to me. It’s essential to buying my groceries and paying my bills,” said Nealy, wearing a disposable mask and gloves — one pink and one black — after spraying the salon chair with a bleach solution for her next customer on Friday.
As much of the country has closed everything but food stores and medical facilities, many places down South remain open. Bars, sporting events and sit-down dining rooms are closed. But in many towns, employees of the local plant that closed for two weeks can still work out at the gym, get their nails done and hair trimmed, have 15 minutes in the tanning bed and buy supplies for their backyard pool.
Southern governors have resisted “stay at home” orders that would close virtually all businesses. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said his people follow rules and are “courteous. They’re gentle. They’re smart.” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said in a Facebook question-and-answer session that “Mississippi’s never going to be China,” referring to the authoritarian country’s near total shutdown of COVID-19 hot spots. And Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said on a televised town hall that he has to “govern the whole state,” including places with no coronavirus cases.
In a country as large as the US and even in an individual state, different responses can make sense with a virus that is spread through close contact, said Brian Bossak, a professor who teaches epidemiology and public health courses at the College of Charleston.
“It’s not like a radioactive cloud that affects everyone, everywhere in the same manner,” Bossak wrote in an email.
The positions of their governors have left local authorities in the South to pass their own orders requiring people to stay home unless going to the grocery store or for medical help. The largest cities in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama have all passed their own rules closing non-essential businesses that are stricter than that backed by their governors.
But even those orders have broad exemptions. In Charleston, South Carolina, nail salons and gyms are not essential businesses but dry cleaners and animal groomers are, and can stay open.
“Being a small business is hard enough as it is. How do they choose who gets to stay open and who goes under?” said Aric Strickland, owner Leisure Life Pools, Spas & Billiards in Lugoff, where no local order has been passed.
Strickland says that without his employees cleaning pools and selling chlorine, backyard pools would turn into mosquito traps and other health hazards.
Strickland’s business, like Nealy’s salon, is in Kershaw County, which has a population of about 66,500. As of Friday, the county had at least 70 of the state’s almost 540 confirmed COVID-19 cases, the second most of any county in the state. Friday marked the first day the county wasn’t at the top of the state’s list.
“I’m not afraid,” Strickland said. “But I’m still Lysoling everything down when you leave.”
The Kershaw County government has strongly suggested everyone stay home but has not backed that by law. The other businesses in the strip mall with Nealy — Elgin Flowers and Gifts, Doggy Do’s and The Piano Barn — closed voluntarily.
Business is down for Nealy. She lost a $200 hair color appointment for Saturday from someone who doesn’t want to venture out. That would have paid for groceries for the week. Her margins are narrowing on the other end too. That box of protective gloves that cost $9 in February and she might not wear or use for more than one client now costs $15 and gets worn and trashed after each person.
Still, Nealy’s business isn’t threatened for now, unlike barbers and beauty salons in Columbia, where a stay-at-home ordinance starts on Sunday morning. The state capital is in Richland County, which was third in the state on Friday with at least 65 coronavirus cases.
Patrick Goodman sat in his barber chair on Main Street in Columbia, scrolling through social media for news about the council meeting where the order passed while waiting for a customer.
“I figure I can close for a month. But I’m done after that,” he said.
Asked if he is taking any precautions against the virus, Goodman motions to a small pump bottle of hand sanitizer by the front door and then the sink near his chair.
A short time later, Keith Donaldson came in for a haircut after his shift at a hospital.
“You can’t stop living your life. All you can do is be careful,” Donaldson said.
Asked if anything else is different since the coronavirus changed so much, Goodman laughed: “Well, we can’t talk about sports. That might be the biggest change.”