Story at a glance

  • As the unemployment rate rises and the economy teeters, many state governors are considering reopening businesses closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Advocates from the Black Voters Matter Fund, Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative and Highlander Research and Education Center wrote an open letter to Southern governors regarding their concerns.
  • The spread of COVID-19 has disproportionately affected black communities, according to early numbers.

Civil rights leaders are asking for a seat at the table during the coronavirus pandemic as state and public health officials weigh reopening their economies. 


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Early data shows black people are being infected with the coronavirus and dying at higher rates than other demographics. But only a handful of states have released COVID-19 data broken up by race.

A petition circulated by the Black Voters Matter Fund asks for safety plans, realtime data on COVID-19 by county and race, increased support for low-income communities and those of color, an expansion of Medicaid and enhanced unemployment support. 

"We are people who believe that we should not have to choose between the safety of our people and the economic wellness of our state. We are people who believe that there are solutions that do not require us to choose between the safety of our families and having enough money to put food on the table," the petition reads. 

Advocates from the charity were joined by members of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative, and the Highlander Research and Education Center, as well as health, labor, and faith-based experts during a virtual press conference on April 23. 

“Black workers are overrepresented in essential positions, and that’s one of the reasons we’re suffering such high death rates. In Mississippi, Black people make up 38 percent of the population but 63 percent of COVID-19 cases. In Georgia, we’re more than 54 percent of COVID-19 patients. These governors are exploiting Black labor, ignoring the humanity of Black people, and refusing to acknowledge that Black lives matter. We need to shift from that, and that means keeping folks at home,” said Spencer Overton, President of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.


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The letter addresses six governors of southern states: Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey. 

"Because these states have some of the lowest testing rates in the entire country, the true risk is even greater than we know. And yet, even with limited testing, what we know is that in these states the increases in both cases and deaths are not flattening. They are increasing at alarming rates, particularly in Black communities and rural communities that don’t receive much attention," the petition reads. 

Also addressed in the letter is the Economic Recovery Group, a joint effort between state departments, members of the legislature and leaders from the private sector led by Tennessee Department of Tourism Development Commissioner Mark Ezell. 

“ERG’s interests are not in alignment with public health safety nor do they actually include any medical health professionals in their process of arriving to the conclusion that now is the time for our states to abandon shelter-in-place orders. Their stated goal simply prioritizes the speed of re-opening rather than the collective welfare of communities already impacted by disproportionate lack of access to COVID-19 testing and treatment,” the letter reads. 

On its website, ERG states that the public-private partnership "will prioritize connection, collaboration, and communication across industries, the medical community and state government." 


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Published on Apr 23, 2020