ATLANTA (Reuters) – Georgia started letting residents dine at restaurants and watch movies at theaters on Monday as more U.S. states from Minnesota to Mississippi took steps to ease coronavirus restrictions even though health experts warned it may be too early.

FILE PHOTO – Royal Rose sits in her tattoo and beauty studio in Greeley, Colorado, where she plans to return to work next week after a month-long stay-at-home order is lifted, set in place due to the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), April 24, 2020. Picture taken April 24, 2020. REUTERS/Keith Coffman

Keen to revive their battered economies, Colorado, Montana and Tennessee were also set to reopen some businesses. Alaska, Oklahoma and South Carolina, along with Georgia, previously took such steps following weeks of mandatory lockdowns that threw millions of Americans out of work.

In the hardest-hit states of New York and New Jersey, part of a metropolitan region of about 32 million people, state governors signaled that even limited restarting of business activities was at least weeks away.

President Donald Trump and some local officials had criticized Georgia Governor Brian Kemp for orders that enabled restaurants and theaters to join a list of businesses, such as hair and nail salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors, he allowed to reopen last week with social-distancing restrictions.

One restaurant chain, Waffle House, was imposing seating arrangements in Georgia that kept patrons at least six feet (two meters) apart, stricter sanitization measures and a requirement that employees wear masks, CEO Walt Ehmer told WSB-TV.

“I know the unemployment system has been enhanced to help take care of the most vulnerable people, but people want to have jobs, and they want to have something to do and take care of their families,” Ehmer said. “I think it’s going to give them some hope.”

Some restaurant owners and managers in Atlanta said they would not reopen on Monday.

“I have a daughter and I want to be around for her,” Steve Pitts, general manager of Manuel’s Tavern, a fixture in the Georgia capital for more than 60 years, told Reuters.

Business shutdowns have led to a record 26.5 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits since mid-March with forecasts by the Trump administration that the jobless rate would likely hit 16% or more in April.

Public health authorities warn that increasing human interactions and economic activity may spark a fresh surge of infections just as social-distancing measures appeared to be bringing coronavirus cases under control.

The number of known infections in the United States topped 970,000 and deaths to COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the virus, surpassed 55,000, according to a Reuters tally.

(GRAPHIC: Reuters online site for coronavirus – here)

ROADMAPS

Officials in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have for weeks emphasized that more testing and contact tracing for the virus needed to be in place before they could implement roadmaps for relaxing stay-at-home orders and other restrictions.

Contact tracing involves tracking down and testing people who may have been around anyone already infected.

Federal guidelines issued by Trump called for a state to record 14 days of declining case numbers before moving ahead with a phased-in relaxation of restrictions.

States were also required to implement a rigorous program of testing and contract tracing.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said at his daily briefing on Monday that any easing would need to be coordinated and monitored, and fit into an overall multi-state plan.

Cuomo said he would likely extend the stay-at-home order in many parts of the state on May 15, but he was looking to reopen some businesses, including manufacturing and construction, in parts of the state with fewer cases of the virus. They would need to meet the criteria of the federal health guidelines.

“We have to coordinate as a region,” he said. “So everybody in that region has to have the same policy … when it comes to testing, when it comes to tracing – and that region’s plan has to fit into our overall multi-state plan.”

Hospitalization rates remained flat in New York, epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, as deaths declined for a second straight day to 337, Cuomo said, the lowest daily toll since March 30.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said at a news conference that hospital discharges again exceeded admissions. He said he would put off announcing details of a plan for one more day, adding: “Public health must precede economic health.”

Slideshow (5 Images)

New Jersey’s stay-at-home order, issued on March 21, would remain until there was a 14-day sustained decrease in new cases and other COVID-19 measures, Murphy said.

In Colorado, Governor Jared Polis gave the green light for retail curbside pickup to begin on Monday. Hair salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors may open on Friday, with retail stores, restaurants and movie theaters to follow.

In a further step to ramp up supplies to fight the pandemic, Trump planned to meet with American textile industry representatives on Monday as clothiers seek to shift their production lines to face masks and other critical items, the White House said.

Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Susan Heavey in Washington; additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Jessica Resnick-Ault, Barbara Goldberg and Nathan Layne; writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Frank McGurty and Howard Goller

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