On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, the Broadway Diner was empty. The ‘50s-style greasy spoon has been a fixture of downtown Columbia for decades. But owner Dave Johnson said he’d never seen anything like this. “I was here when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, and I thought that was horrible, but it’s nothing like this,” Johnson said.
The diner closed its dine-in space three days ago, following an order from the city government. A few days earlier, Johnson announced the diner would feed any students and community members, after local colleges and the public school system closed.
Just half an hour away and a county over, the dining room of the Palace Restaurant in Boonville was still open. Owner George Xifridis bought the restaurant 35 years ago after emigrating from Greece. He said the staff sanitizes everything in the restaurant, from doors handles to tables, and disinfecting surfaces with bleach. Still, business had already slowed a week ago and is now down to a trickle.
“I think they are scared,” Xifridis said. “They will call maybe for to-go or curbside pick-up, but I imagine they’re afraid to come in.”
He understands why people are scared, and said he has concerns about the virus himself, but that if he closes, he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to reopen.
Xifridis can still offer dine-in eating because, while individual cities have issued orders closing restaurants and bars - the only state-wide orders to that effect instruct Missourians to “avoid” eating at them; not mandating they close.
Throughout his briefings on the COVID-19 pandemic, Missouri Governor Mike Parson has repeatedly come back to two words: personal responsibility. “At the end of the day, it is going to be personal responsibility that’s going to be a part of the future of what we’re doing to fight the coronavirus,” Parson said.
With the number of COVID-19 cases in the Midwest growing, an increasing number of states have turned to stay-at-home orders to stem the spread. But in Missouri, the state government has shied away from such policies.
Instead, Parson has said decisions, about closing schools, restricting bars and restaurants, and other actions have to happen on the local level. He has emphasized the differences between rural and urban Missouri, and one of his big sticking points has been businesses. He recently directed the Department of Health and Senior Services to mandate social distancing policies, like limiting public gathering to 10 or fewer people. He also suspended regulations on restaurants serving unprepared foods, to allow eateries to ease the demand on grocery stores.
Brian Houston, the chair of the Communication Department at the University of Missouri, who research focuses on disasters, said Parson’s instructions are not very clear and have many exceptions. Houston said leaders should aim for simple and specific instruction. Leaders have to toe the line between calming the public’s fears about the pandemic, but at the same time, make it clear they should take the danger seriously, he said.
“It really is a tough situation from a communication perspective, but that is one of the reasons why we need the simplest, clearest communication and policies possible,” Houston said.
Houston said the orders Parson has issued ultimately leave more decisions in the hands of the public. Other states surrounding Missouri have taken a different course of action.
In Kansas, Democratic Governor Laura Kelly declared a state of emergency a week after the first COVID-19-related death on March 7. A week after that, she closed K-12 schools for the rest of the school year under an Executive Order.
“The reality of this pandemic is that it cannot be controlled statewide if school buildings return to normal operation or if they respond inconsistently within our local communities,” Kelly said in a press conference.
Republican governors have taken similar preventative actions. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson made decisions based on evidence of increasing community spread last week — extending school closure for two more weeks and banning all sit-down restaurant services. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds ordered mandatory closure for all bars and restaurants with the exception of take out or drive-thrus, and closing schools. Reynolds said she thinks it will make a difference.
“That’s why these are some of the tough calls we’ve had to make, but we believe by making these tough calls on the front end we will significantly impact the health and safety of Iowans in the state,” Reynolds said during a press conference.
Now, some governors at bordering states are starting to issue stay-at-home orders. Illinois’ governor, J.B. Pritzker was the first of Missouri’s neighboring states to issue a shelter-in-place by an Executive Order to prevent community spread. Indiana’s Republican Governor, Eric Holcomb, also recently announced a stay-at-home order. But Parson said each state has to make its own decisions.
“The effects that’ll have on everyday people are dramatic,” Parson said. “That means businesses will close, people will lose their jobs, the economy will be in worse shape than ever.”
While the Missouri State Medical Association called for stay-at-home orders to reduce the spread of the virus, Parson has argued such an order would hit rural areas harder than urban areas. An estimated 30% of the state’s population lives in a rural area, according to the Missouri Census Data Center.
In lieu of state-wide orders, cities and counties have issued their own directives. Columbia, and both the St. Louis and Kansas City metro areas are under stay-at-home orders, issued by their municipal governments. Business leaders, doctors and — recently — mayors have called for uniform rules for the state. As the number of cases in the state continues to grow, so too does pressure on the governor to take action.