US southern states move to reopen economies 

Georgia and several other southern US states are moving to ease lockdown restrictions as early as this week, as sporadic protests erupt in other states over the strict measures governors have enacted to tackle coronavirus.

Brian Kemp, the Republican governor of Georgia, said residents could visit gyms, hair salons, tattoo parlours and bowling alleys from Friday, and could then start going to movie theatres and restaurants from Monday.

Henry McMaster, South Carolina’s Republican governor, rescinded a ban on residents going to the beach and eased restrictions on retail outlets to let them reopen if they implement social distancing measures. Bill Lee, the Republican governor of Tennessee, said his stay-at-home order would lapse at the end of April.

Mr Kemp was one of the last governors to impose a lockdown and his move makes his state one of the first to ease restrictions. Georgia has not met the criteria outlined by the White House last week when it recommended that a state see a decline in cases for 14 days before starting to reopen.

The move was slammed by two Democrats — Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader in the Georgia legislature, and Keisha Lance Bottom, the Atlanta mayor — who are both possible running mates for Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

Ms Abrams said the decision was “dangerously incompetent”. Ms Lance urged Atlanta residents to continue to stay at home. Mr Kemp came under intense criticism earlier this month when he acknowledged that he had not realised that people who had no symptoms could still be carrying the virus.

The moves to open some states came as Facebook said it would remove pages promoting anti-lockdown protests that did not adhere to social distancing guidelines. The company took the decision as a spate of public rallies opposed to the coronavirus measures continued across the US. 

Facebook said it would take down content organising anti-quarantine protests if they sought to defy social distancing rules in US states. It has already removed content in California, Nebraska and New Jersey, but said events that include clear calls for social distancing would be permitted.

Small protests have erupted sporadically in recent days as a combination of far-right groups and supporters of President Donald Trump have targeted the governors of states, most Democratic-led, with the more severe lockdowns.

Several hundred people protested outside the Pennsylvania state capitol building in Harrisburg on Monday against lockdown measures introduced by Tom Wolf, the Democratic governor. Mr Wolf announced on Monday that the state’s stay-at-home order would be extended until May 8. 

Some of the protesters have been emboldened by Mr Trump, who last week urged followers in a tweet to “liberate” Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia — all states with Democratic governors, such as Pennsylvania.

On Sunday Mr Trump refused to condemn the protesters despite the fact that many are not practising the social distancing guidelines that his own administration has recommended should remain in effect for now.

Mr Trump said they were “great people” who had “cabin fever” and that they had the right to protest, particularly because some of the governors, including Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, had gone too far.

As it enforces its policy, Facebook said it had contacted state officials to better understand the scope of their orders related to social distancing.

The social media company is battling to crack down on the false information and conspiracy theories related to coronavirus that are rapidly spreading on the platform. It also announced a new tool last week that informs users if they have interacted with dangerous Covid-19 misinformation on the platform.

At the same time, Facebook risks charges of censorship if it is seen to prevent political discourse — at a time when it already faces accusations of anticonservative bias. 

In Pennsylvania on Monday cars and trucks honked their horns as protesters, some holding placards that backed Mr Trump, waved American flags and called on Mr Wolf to ease stay-at-home restrictions.

The lockdown has been especially devastating to Pennsylvania’s economy, in part because Mr Wolf moved earlier than most governors to order the closure of non-essential businesses in his state to curb coronavirus. 

Pennsylvania has recorded almost 34,000 cases of Covid-19, the fourth-highest total in the country. The number of people who have died has hit 1,348, giving the rust-belt state, the fifth-highest death toll in the US.

Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, who chairs the National Governors Association, questioned why Mr Trump was encouraging dangerous behaviour against the advice of his health experts. Last week Mr Trump introduced a plan to reopen the country that urged states to start resuming normal activity only after a 14-day drop in cases.

Mr Hogan on Sunday told the television news channel CNN that many of the states where the protests were occurring, including Maryland, had not yet hit that target.

“To encourage people to go protest the plan that you just made recommendations . . . just doesn’t make any sense,” Mr Hogan said.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi

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