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Columbia, S.C. Mayor Expresses His Reservations With State Reopening Plan

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Governors in several Southern states are starting to test their state's ability to reopen. In Georgia, gyms, barbershops, bowling alleys and other businesses will reopen this Friday. Tennessee will end its stay-at-home order next week. And earlier this week, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster announced that some retail businesses can open up shop again - department stores, florists, bookstores and more. Now, this decision does not sit well with everyone. We are joined now by Stephen Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, S.C.

Mayor Benjamin, welcome.

STEPHEN BENJAMIN: Hey. Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: Glad to have you here. So you do not support Governor McMaster's decision to open up some stores. Why not?

BENJAMIN: You know, well, we believe strongly in Columbia, S.C., home to the state's largest research institution and several other colleges too, historically black colleges, We believe that we should focus on data, not on arbitrary dates. And the reality is that, as we're looking at when we should reopen businesses and begin to structurally take apart the efforts we've put into place regarding social distancing, we should at very least see over 14 days, over two weeks, a deceleration in a number of cases and infections in South Carolina.

In our state, we are the - based on which bits of data and reporting you see, the 48th, 49th or 50th in per capita testing across this country. America has a broad problem. South Carolina has a real problem. And without good testing, you don't have good data. Without good data, you can't make good intelligent policy decisions. So we've been pressing the governor, asking him to make strong, smart, thoughtful, data-based decisions.

KELLY: Just saying, hold on. Does it ease your mind at all there are still supposed to be strict rules that are - will be in place? I gather it's only five customers allowed per thousand square feet in a store. There will still be social distancing.

BENJAMIN: No. I think strict is not maybe the best characterization of the rule. The governor - of course, Charleston and Columbia led the pack in moving forward with having stay home orders. The governor came back with a different order that was a lot more lenient, listed a number of non-essential businesses and then proceeded to exempt many of them from social distancing requirements and staying open. That's a whole nother story.

KELLY: Yeah.

BENJAMIN: We're going to push the governor. And on the local level, we're going to spend some time not just talking about opening the economy - because the reality is that if customer and consumer and citizen confidence isn't there, they're not going to participate in the economy. We need to focus on building a pandemic-resilient economy. How do we...

KELLY: You said you're...

BENJAMIN: I'm sorry?

KELLY: Forgive me. I wanted to pick up where you said you're going to push the governor on this. Have you called him?

BENJAMIN: Oh, yes. Oh, yeah. I call the governor regularly.

KELLY: What'd he say? Can you give us a sense of that conversation?

BENJAMIN: Sometimes the (unintelligible) call back and sometimes they don't. The plan now is a group meeting, a number of mayors, to put some ideas before him. You know, we got to focus on ways that - we can't perfectly mitigate risk, but we can do a whole lot of different things in terms of helping our businesses get ready to participate in the economy, as opposed to just opening them and seeing an acceleration of cases. That's not the wise way to do it. We've got to follow data, not arbitrary dates.

KELLY: This is a blunt question, but how much power do you have over how reopening unfolds in your city? Don't state orders supersede local guidance?

BENJAMIN: Well, he's taken different approaches over the last month and a half. Some - he does have the ability and authority to preempt the local governments. He intimated on Friday that he would reopen public beaches. A number of communities across the coast said, no, you won't. And he changed his (unintelligible). So I think obviously broad public pressure to encourage the governor to do the right thing that's in the long-term public health interests of our citizens can push him in a way. But if he chooses to preempt us, our hands tend to be tied. But it's clear to us that you can't be pro-business or pro-economy if you're not pro-public health.

KELLY: Right.

BENJAMIN: Public health should take priority.

KELLY: We just have 30 seconds or so left. But what are you hearing from the business community in Columbia? Are they clamoring to get back to work? Are they on the same page you are?

BENJAMIN: We've been in lockstep with our business community here in Colombia. They've been very supportive of our efforts. We rolled out early on a 6 1/2 million - plan of resilient Columbia that's sought to prop up a number of businesses through these difficult times. So they've been working closely with us. And we feel strongly that we have their broad support.

KELLY: That is Stephen Benjamin. He is the mayor of Columbia, S.C.

Mayor, great to have you with us. Thanks for your time.

BENJAMIN: Thank you for having me. God bless you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.