On the final Saturday of a confounding March in Mississippi, the young mayor of Moss Point, Mario King, went on Facebook Live to update his constituents on the latest measures that the small, predominantly black Gulf Coast city was taking to fight the spread of COVID-19. Sitting alone in his home office, in a tan polo shirt emblazoned with the city’s emblem, King broke down what’s meant by “shelter in place” (“Stay at home”), explained why Moss Point has a strict new curfew (“Because, as we’ve trusted everybody, our numbers are still increasing”), gave a live demonstration of different methods by which restaurants and stores can keep people six feet apart when they’re in line for takeout, and pleaded with folks to practice social distancing. “We are a very close-knit community,” King said. “But, at this point, I need you to step away from each other, six feet away from each other.”
Near the end of his forty-minute talk, King walked toward the porch of his apartment building, which looks out over the small area that constitutes downtown Moss Point. “I want to show all you churchgoing people that got upset about closing the churches some faith in action,” he said. Across the street, in a sandy parking lot, a preacher was standing on a makeshift platform, sermonizing loudly into a microphone for around fifteen carloads of worshippers. “You see that? That’s our Pastor Bolden. He’s outside—he’s doing it!” King said, gesturing across the way. “You see? It can be done! Look at that. Do y’all see a building? No. That is church. Church!”
At that point, confirmed coronavirus cases in Mississippi were multiplying exponentially, and the state’s response had been confusing at best. Like King, several Mississippi mayors had taken early, aggressive action—in some cases, weeks before the state’s first confirmed case, on March 11th—to try and save their citizens. But Governor Tate Reeves, a first-term Republican and Donald Trump acolyte, had said that he was taking a “wait and see” approach to the unfolding crisis, while rejecting calls to shut down the state’s beaches, to run off spring breakers. Most states’ governors, including John Bel Edwards, in neighboring Louisiana, were issuing statewide stay-at-home orders, among other directives, but Reeves steadfastly refused to make any moves beyond closing public schools, declaring a state of emergency, and advising Mississippians to trust in the “power of prayer.” After a March 4th press conference, he flew to Europe, for a family-related trip. The G.O.P.-dominated state legislature hastily fled the capitol, in Jackson, soon after the pandemic officially arrived, without appropriating a nickel to handle the approaching crisis.
New Orleans, an hour-and-forty-minute drive from Moss Point, was fast becoming an epicenter for the outbreak. Although many city leaders in Mississippi took their cues from Reeves, King and other mayors consulted with medical experts and began to implement emergency measures: shutting down bars and restaurants and nonessential businesses, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control; threatening fines and imprisonment, in order to mandate social distancing; imposing curfews; and requiring—or at least, at first, strongly encouraging—folks to stay put at home. “We were told by the governor that no statewide action was going to happen,” the mayor of Tupelo, Jason Shelton, told me. “So we needed to act in our cities, and we did. Anybody could see that this virus wasn’t going to stop at the Mississippi River. The question clearly wasn’t whether people were going to die but how many.”
By mid-March, a patchwork of local emergency orders—with widely varying restrictions—had cropped up across the state. Mayors such as King, Shelton, and Oxford’s Robyn Tannehill, all of whom are Democrats, were taking to social media, explaining the hard realities of the pandemic and defending their actions while also offering tips on proper hand-washing techniques. On March 15th, before her city had any positive tests, Tannehill laid out social-distancing rules and restrictions on restaurants and bars, introducing the hashtag #servingoxfordsafely as a new motto for a town with twenty thousand college students and a large retirement community. “There’s no rule book here,” she said, “but the general consensus is that we do need to dramatically alter our daily lives, starting now.”
A week later, with cases beginning to multiply across the state, she invited two local doctors to join her—at an appropriate distance—on a live-streamed video about urging compliance with social-distancing requirements. “This could be the most important role you have in this community in your life,” Dr. Jeff Dennis solemnly told his fellow-Oxfordians. Tannehill, sensitive to complaints that the college town, home to Ole Miss, was clamping down while neighboring cities were operating as usual, concluded the discussion calmly but firmly. “In the end, it will be impossible to know if we overreacted or did too much,” she said. “But it will be quite apparent if we underreacted or did too little.”
On March 22nd, as the number of confirmed cases spiked by sixty-seven over the previous day, Reeves, who had been compelled to cut his trip short and fly home, held a Sunday-morning prayer session. The event was live-streamed from the governor’s mansion. After offering a few reassuring passages of scripture (“In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer”), he bowed his head. “Thank you for looking over us,” he prayed. “Thank you for giving our leaders wisdom. Dear Heavenly Father, please be with President Trump, Vice-President Pence, the leadership team in Washington as they try to deal with this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic across the globe.”
The next day, on a live stream, Reeves answered selected questions from citizens. A number of them demanded to know why the state wasn’t taking stronger measures to protect public health. China did a lockdown, one questioner said, and “it was good for them. Why can’t Mississippi?” Reeves shot back: “Mississippi’s never going to be China. Mississippi’s never going to be North Korea.”
On Tuesday, with the state having quickly shot up to twelfth in the nation for per-capita coronavirus cases, Reeves—while still refusing to shut down beaches or issue a stay-at-home order—changed his mind about statewide action and put out a confusingly worded executive order overturning the emergency orders and restrictions that cities like Moss Point, Tupelo, Oxford, and Jackson had imposed. Although several municipalities had followed C.D.C. guidelines for closing down nonessential businesses, Reeves’s order redefined an “essential” business as practically every business. The decree forbade “any limitation or restriction” on gun and ammo shops, car dealerships (mentioned three times), houses of worship and “faith-based facilities,” restaurants and bars, real-estate offices and construction services, movie theatres, coffee shops, and Uber and Lyft.
As restaurant owners and gun dealers hurried to reopen their doors, and churches hastily organized Wednesday-night services, to make up for the previous lost Sunday, the mayors were understandably outraged. “I definitely think that he is a hundred per cent putting economic interests before people’s health,” King said. It didn’t come as a total shock, though: in his 2019 gubernatorial campaign, Reeves, a former bank executive who had served as the leader of the state senate, had vowed that, “if I’m elected governor, I will work for President Trump.” Reeves’s executive order, it turned out, was the brainchild of the state’s agriculture commissioner, who had sent him a list of businesses that he—and his corporate sponsors and friends—felt should be reopened and left alone. Reeves copied the list into his decree, which he issued without consulting the local officials who had taken measures to impose social distancing. As Tannehill told me this week, “To pass an E.O. without having conversations with community leaders could only lead to frustration and confusion—I sure felt it. He did it with no knowledge of what these communities needed, or why we had what we had in place.”
No state in America is more vulnerable to the pandemic than Mississippi. That’s because, as Shelton says, “We’re one of the poorest states in the nation, and we’ve had a health crisis for a long time.” Indeed, Mississippi leads the country in nearly every “underlying condition” that makes people especially susceptible to dying from COVID-19. More than fourteen per cent of adults have diabetes. The state tallies more deaths from asthma and cardiovascular disease than any other. And it’s second only to West Virginia in adult obesity. Mississippi’s refusal to accept billions of dollars in expanded Medicaid funding under the Affordable Care Act has only exacerbated the health crisis. “We had an opportunity to get three hundred thousand people provided with insurance with expansion,” Shelton notes. “It defies logic.”