Southern States Move To Reopen; Tips For Grocery Shopping Data shared at a White House press briefing Thursday was unusual, says David Lappan of the Bipartisan Policy Center — and not just because it prompted the President to wonder if disinfectants could be injected into coronavirus patients.

Southern states are some of the first to start reopening, but NPR's Debbie Elliott reports people there may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 because of high rates of poverty, chronic diseases, and natural disasters.

Plus, a Washington Post reporter on what America looks like from the open road.

The biggest risk in grocery shopping comes from the people you could come in contact with, not the food. Watch Life Kit's video for tips on grocery shopping safely.

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Southern States, Moving To Reopen, Could Be Most Vulnerable

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Southern States, Moving To Reopen, Could Be Most Vulnerable

Southern States, Moving To Reopen, Could Be Most Vulnerable

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  • Transcript

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Retail stores in Texas, beaches in Florida and golf courses in Minnesota are starting to reopen, while the president said national social distancing guidelines, which continue until Thursday, April 30, might be extended.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, we may, and we may go beyond that. We're going to have to see where it is. And I think people are going to know - you're going to know; I'm going to know - I think people are going to know just out of common sense. At some point, we won't have to do that.

MCEVERS: Coming up - why people in Southern states could be especially vulnerable if those states open up too soon and some advice on shopping for groceries, safely. This is CORONAVIRUS DAILY from NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers. It's Friday, April 24.

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MCEVERS: OK, so let's talk about sunlight.

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WILLIAM BRYAN: Our most striking observation to date is the powerful effect that solar light appears to have on killing the virus.

MCEVERS: Thursday, at the White House, William Bryan, a homeland security official - who, we should say, is not a scientist - went over some data that he said had just come from a government research lab in Maryland.

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BRYAN: Today, I would like to share certain trends that we believe are important.

MCEVERS: Scientists had found, he said, that the coronavirus, like a lot of pathogens, does not do well in direct sunlight. He also said bleach and isopropyl alcohol...

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BRYAN: We're also testing disinfectants.

MCEVERS: ...Appear to inactivate the virus...

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BRYAN: We've tested bleach. We've tested isopropyl alcohol.

MCEVERS: ...Which is already pretty well known. And he said the coronavirus might be less stable in heat and humidity.

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BRYAN: This is not the end of our work, as we continue to characterize this virus and integrate our findings in the practical applications...

MCEVERS: Ad what stood out about this briefing, aside from the moment you've probably already heard a lot about, was that the White House didn't issue a report on this information nor did they share any details about it until the next day, and that was just a two-page fact sheet.

DAVID LAPAN: It's similar to what many in the government talk about - predecisional information - that things that are still being discussed tested, vetted, are not ready to be rolled out to the public.

MCEVERS: David Lapan with the Bipartisan Policy Center served in the military for 30 years, including as a DHS spokesman under President Trump. And he told NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith that sharing raw data without any kind of report to back it up might happen between agencies behind closed doors...

LAPAN: That is very different from then having the president bring it out into a very public forum and present that information, not only by Bill Bryan but then the president to then ruminate on that.

MCEVERS: You probably know what he means by ruminate.

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TRUMP: Right. And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning...

MCEVERS: The president now says he was being sarcastic about injecting disinfectant into patients with COVID-19. And we know you already know this, but we should say it anyway - that would be extremely dangerous. Trump was eager to suggest, as he has many times before, that the virus could wane in the summer.

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TRUMP: You know, when you see this, a lot of people have been talking about summer. Maybe this is one of the reasons...

MCEVERS: In fact, most experts think the virus is too new to be as seasonal as, say, the flu. It is hitting hard right now in parts of the world that are hot and humid.

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MCEVERS: Southern states, including Georgia and South Carolina, have been some of the first in the country to ease stay-at-home orders. But people in that region of the country might be especially vulnerable to this pandemic. And there is no unifying strategy between leaders in the region on how to reopen safely. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Outside the Alabama Capitol this week, a few dozen protesters drove around demanding to get back to work.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Freedom.

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ELLIOTT: Republican Governor Kay Ivey has issued a stay-at-home order through April 30. Paralegal Melissa Kirby from Athens, Ala., says she's had enough.

MELISSA KIRBY: If she was worried about safety, she could let the people who are actually in danger self-quarantine, wash your hands more. But to force businesses to shut down, that's not her call.

ELLIOTT: From inside the Capitol, Ivey says no one wants to open the economy more than she does, but the state must first increase its testing capacity.

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KAY IVEY: All my decisions that I'm going to make are based on data.

ELLIOTT: She's taking a more cautious approach than neighboring states - Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Mississippi - where Republican governors are moving to reopen at least parts of their economies.

THOMAS LAVEIST: I think that we could be heading for a macabre game of whack-a-mole.

ELLIOTT: Thomas LaVeist is dean of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans. He worries that Louisiana, an early hot spot for COVID-19, could see a resurgence in infection as surrounding states ease restrictions.

LAVEIST: Unless the states in the South can coordinate the way the states in the Northeast, the West and the Upper Midwest are starting to do, we're going to have problems.

ELLIOTT: LaVeist describes what he calls a toxic mix of long-standing policy decisions and population characteristics that already create an opportunity for a pandemic to rage in the South. He points to high poverty rates, large numbers of uninsured residents, lower minimum wages and general health and well-being measures.

LAVEIST: The South is the epicenter for health inequities in this country. We call the South the stroke belt - you know, higher rates of all chronic conditions.

ELLIOTT: Another disturbing trend is the high proportion of cases and deaths among African Americans. The early evidence of that is from Louisiana, where the death toll has now surpassed that of Hurricane Katrina.

LATOYA CANTRELL: And this virus has exposed the social and economic fragility of working families...

ELLIOTT: New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell.

CANTRELL: ...You know, families who do not earn a living wage, those who go without access to health care, those who lack a social safety net. So all of this is embedded in, really, what we're seeing.

ELLIOTT: Southern states are also subject to natural disasters. This month, there have been deadly tornadoes and flash floods. Hurricane season starts June 1. And there's spring flooding on the Mississippi River.

ERRICK SIMMONS: In a city that has a 38.6% poverty rate, this COVID-19 is exacerbating all of the issues that we're having.

ELLIOTT: In the river town of Greenville, Miss., Mayor Errick Simmons (ph) says they're still reeling from record floods last year, and now this.

SIMMONS: We still have people displaced from last year's flood to worry about, plus the acute nature of the pandemic's economic downturn. It is felt more here than many other places.

ELLIOTT: Simmons says demand at food pantries and soup kitchens has nearly tripled in the Mississippi Delta in the face of the pandemic. Regionwide, 8 of the 10 states with the biggest jumps in unemployment claims are in the South, with some Southern states now on the brink of reopening.

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MCEVERS: NPR's Debbie Elliott.

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MCEVERS: Driving across parts of the country, America looks pretty empty these days.

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HOLLY BAILEY: You can drive for miles and miles and miles and not see anybody.

MCEVERS: Holly Bailey is a national political reporter for The Washington Post, and she was in Arizona covering the Democratic primary when things started to close down. So she rented a car and decided to road-trip back home to D.C. She passed through Marathon, Texas.

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BAILEY: And they shut down the hotels. They shut down Airbnbs. They shut down Big Bend National Park.

MCEVERS: She kept going east to Austin.

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BAILEY: Bars and restaurants were boarded up, and there were messages written of, see you in May. And it was just so startling.

MCEVERS: Holly talked to Morning Edition host David Greene about what else she has seen on the road.

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BAILEY: There was one moment in Little Rock, Ark., where I saw a woman pull up outside a Target store. And she parked in the farthest spot from the store and got out of her car. And she had gloves on, and she had a mask on. But she just could not seem to bring herself to walk to the front door. And she just - she stood there for several minutes, watching people go in and out - a lot of people who weren't wearing masks, a lot of younger people. And she got back in her car.

And I kind of knew what was happening, and so I drove over to her, and I rolled down my window. You know, I was like, you OK? You know, is there anything I can do to help you? She just told me she was just too scared to go in the store. And just - she just couldn't get out of the car. And she was so scared, she barely rolled down her window to talk to me. And then she was like, I'll try tomorrow, and just drove away.

And it was like - it was very, very sad. And, you know, it's those kind of moments that sort of hit you emotionally of what Americans are going through. There's fear - real fear.

DAVID GREENE: Everywhere. Has that been a lot of what your travels have been like?

BAILEY: Yeah. Driving through - you know, I took a route that took me through Texas and then up through Oklahoma and then up to Interstate 40, which took me across Arkansas and Tennessee up into Virginia. And it was interesting to see the kind of differences in how some places were handling this.

GREENE: So I love some of the messages you've been photographing on theater marquees and church signs and businesses. I think my favorite is Dr. Scott's Pinball in Maumee, Ohio - isn't pinball an essential service - I guess not. What image has stuck with you?

BAILEY: You know, it just - you know, people write, stay safe, or whatever. But my favorite, I think, was in Tucson, Ariz. There was one that just said, [expletive] you, coronavirus. And I think that gets toward the anger. People's lives have been completely disrupted.

GREENE: Do you feel like on all these travels so far that you've learned something new about our country?

BAILEY: I'm always struck as a reporter by people's resilience. When I was in Memphis, I had - was still sort of emotionally thinking about that woman in Little Rock who had been so scared to get out of her car and go into the Target. And so when I arrived in Memphis, I stayed in the same hotel. I'd been there a few weeks earlier covering Super Tuesday. And I saw the same hotel clerk I had met there before. Almost the entire staff of the hotel had been furloughed. And she said it was literally like just a snap overnight that everybody had lost their jobs. But she still had one, and she said that that's what she was focusing on - is that she still had a job to go to and she was grateful.

And she was a foster child. And she said, you know, I lost my parents when I was young, and I've gone through worse things than this. And she was like, I'm just determined to stay positive. And I think about her a lot and wonder, you know, if she's OK and how she's still doing, 'cause it's hard. It's very hard for people to be positive when, you know, who knows what's going to happen next?

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MCEVERS: Holly Bailey with NPR's David Greene. You can check out her Instagram for a look at her trip. She's @hollybdc.

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MCEVERS: When you're at the grocery store these days, focus on people, not food. Social distancing is what will keep you safe. Go off-hours. Go alone. Keep your household's risk of infection lower and keep the store less crowded. Wear a face cover. Make a list. Get in, get out. Wash your hands before you go and as soon as you can after you leave and again after you put everything away at home. You should rinse your produce, but you don't need to disinfect every single thing you bring home from the store, so says NPR science editor Maria Godoy, who has been talking to a lot of experts about this. Washing your hands is way more important. For more advice, check out Maria's recent episode for NPR's Life Kit, along with a helpful video in our episode notes.

And tomorrow, we'll bring you another Q&A episode, and we're back with a regular episode on Monday. This podcast is produced by the great team of Gabriela Saldivia, Anne Li and Brent Baughman, and edited by Beth Donovan. I'm Kelly McEvers.

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