Businesses risk being sued amid virus, Mississippi gov says

Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves is allowing many businesses to remain open amid the coronavirus pandemic, but he repeated Friday that some should voluntarily change the way they operate. The Republican added a new twist by implying a threat from trial lawyers who often support Democrats.

"Large businesses that do not allow employees who could work from home to do so are risking some serious lawsuits down the road if major outbreaks can be traced back to them," Reeves wrote on Twitter. "Stay home. Stay safe. This is not to be taken lightly, and we are far from the end."

Reeves has not issued a statewide stay-at-home order even as the Health Department on Friday updated Mississippi's confirmed coronavirus caseload to at least 579 people and eight deaths. Neighboring Louisiana has one of the fastest-growing caseloads in the U.S., and people commute between the two states.

Reeves spent part of Friday touring military facilities he said could be used to treat patients if Mississippi health care facilities become too busy.

The governor said Thursday that it's OK if cities and counties impose tighter restrictions than what he's ordered in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Reeves issued an executive order Tuesday telling people to avoid gatherings of 10 or more and broadly defining which businesses are so "essential" that they can remain open. That order said restaurants can offer carry-out or delivery meals but must close their dining rooms unless they're able to keep 10 or fewer people, including staff, at least 6 feet (2 meters) apart.

Some cities went further, ordering all restaurant dining rooms closed. After hearing from the Mississippi Municipal League, Reeves issued a clarification to his executive order acknowledging they have the power to do that.
"Many of them are working very, very hard, and we want to allow them to do what's best for their communities," Reeves said Thursday during a news conference at the Governor's Mansion.

Because testing remains limited as the outbreak grows, many people moving around their communities may not know they've inhaled the virus until well after they've infected others. Places where people who aren't isolating share the air with others pose a particular risk, since the highly contagious virus has been shown to live in the air for several hours.

Most infected people experience mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, but a fraction of people suffering more severe illnesses can require respirators to survive, and as as the caseload rapidly grows, hospitals are bracing for a coming wave of patients.

A Democratic state official, northern district Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, said people should not be complacent just because Health Department numbers don't yet show confirmed cases of the virus in some parts of Mississippi.

"You can rest assured that this virus is in every county," Presley said Friday on social media. "It doesn't know where the county line is. ... It's simply a matter of time until your county shows up on the map."

The University of Mississippi Medical Center announced Friday that its pathology lab has begun running results for commercially available coronavirus test kits and eventually will be able to deliver results for up to 180 people a day. That should ease the burden on the state health lab, which has been handling most of the testing in Mississippi.