AJC Interview: Kemp says he still has ‘arrows left in the quiver’ to fight coronavirus

‘This is going to be a long fight.’

Gov. Brian Kemp pushed back on criticism that he’s not doing enough to combat Georgia’s coronavirus outbreak, saying in a Tuesday interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he is trying to strike a balance between public safety and economic vitality but that he has more “arrows left in the quiver.”

The governor told the AJC his order to ban many public gatherings, close bars and nightclubs, and authorize officials to shut down any business that doesn't comply with social distancing requirements will help curb the disease without yet having to resort to drastic measures such as shelter-in-place rules.

“You have to have the citizens go with you when you make those moves. I certainly don’t feel like we’re there. I think that would have devastated a lot of people, literally decades of what they have built up. A lot of people are acting responsibly,” he said.

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“We cannot only think about what we’re dealing with today, but the future of our state two months from now, six months now and six years from now. I’ve been really balancing all these things,” Kemp added, saying there are some Georgians still “doubting the effects of the coronavirus” and others who want him to lock down the state.

The Republican has come under fire from some public health experts and other critics after he stopped short of ordering most Georgians to stay in their homes, closing restaurants or taking other stricter measures imposed by a growing number of governors as the pandemic worsens.

And on Tuesday, the Georgia Municipal Association urged the leaders of all 538 cities in the state to declare public health emergencies and shut down nonessential businesses within their boundaries, pressing beyond the coronavirus restrictions set by Kemp.

10/07/2019 — Atlanta, Georgia — Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields (left) listens as Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks during a presser at the Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters, Monday, October 7, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

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In the interview, Kemp said he welcomed the tougher restrictions from local governments and singled out Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, saying that he spoke several times with her before she implemented a shelter-in-place order across Georgia’s largest city.

And he said he was not worried about a patchwork of responses that have left some areas under voluntary curfews and others with scaled-back restrictions in place. He said new restrictions on the Georgians considered most at risk of infection, as well as his other mandates, would cover local governments that have taken fewer steps.

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“For the counties that don’t want to do anything, we addressed that yesterday with social gatherings and social distancing, closing bars and nightclubs and making sure the medically fragile are staying home,” he said.

Pressed on when he might institute a statewide shelter-in-place order, as an increasing number of governors have ordered, Kemp said there’s no line in the sand to make such a decision.

“I’d hate to say there’s a certain threshold. I’m continuing to rely on information I’m getting from public health. What our modeling is showing, what our hospital situation is,” Kemp said.

“We’ve seen in other countries just because you shelter in place (it doesn’t mean) there’s not going to be tremendous growth in coronavirus cases," he said. "That’s why I think we need to focus on the elderly and the medically fragile.”

Still, he didn’t rule out taking more stringent measures, and he added that he has considered banning hospitals from performing elective surgeries to conserve lifesaving medical equipment and hospital beds.

“That’s why I’m just urging citizens to buckle down for the next two weeks. I feel like if we can do that and get the upper hand on this thing, we’ll be in good shape. If that changes, we’ve got arrows left in the quiver.”

Coronavirus outbreak

Credit: Cox Media Group

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Credit: Cox Media Group

He offered a window into his approach in a separate interview with News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB earlier Tuesday, describing this fight as a societal effort.

“The community is going to stop this virus. It’s not going to be the government or a medical provider right now,” he told the station. “Until we find the vaccine or a cure for this, and that is months if not years away, society can stop the spread of this and contain it.”

In the AJC interview, Kemp said he borrowed the notion from public health scientists leading the federal response and said it reminded him there’s no “playbook” to craft Georgia’s response.

“Nobody really saw this coming. We went from being in the best economy I’ve ever seen to wondering where we’re going,” he said. "But I personally think if everybody does the right thing in the next week or two to get a hold of this, we can come out of this and get back on a roll.”

Other snippets from the interview:

On Bottoms’ decision to call for a shelter-in-place order:

“I haven’t been critical of those. I think she’s making the right move. That’s really what the president and vice president are doing – they’re supporting the governors. I’m supporting the local governments.”

On worries that the U.S. economy could be reopened too soon: 

“This is going to be a long fight. It’s a two-month hurricane or a two-month ice storm event. It’s not going to get over in the next week. We’ve been fighting it for a month now, and it’s been here much longer than that, I believe. We’re going to have to keep fighting it for the next few weeks, for sure, and probably longer than that. And how we’re fighting it depends on the data.”

March 18, 2020 Atlanta: A sign says it all to passing motorists at Murphey Candler Elementary School at 6775 S Goddard Road in Lithonia, DeKalb County on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Gov. Brian Kemp ordered the closure of all public elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools in Georgia that began Wednesday and will continue through the end of the month as the state scrambles to contain the coronavirus pandemic. School districts accounting for more than 1.7 million of Georgia’s 1.8 million students had already suspended classes, though some rural schools have remained open. And most Georgia colleges shifted to online coursework last week. Just over two weeks after the first confirmed coronavirus case in Georgia, much of the state is practicing social distancing, with restaurants, theaters and other social gathering places closing down or reducing hours in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM


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On whether to ban religious services, to WDUN:

“I struggled greatly with whether to just bar church services, but at the end of the day I felt like that may have been a bit too far, so we’re going to allow gatherings of 10 people or more, but you just have to be able to do it by spreading your parishioners out.”

On not sugar-coating the pandemic, to WSB:

“Until we find the vaccine or a cure for this, and that is months if not years away, society can stop the spread of this and contain it. We’re not going to keep it from getting here. It’s here, it’s spreading as an airborne virus now. We’ve got to deal with it. But we also have to keep our economy going where it’s reasonable and make sure we don’t have bad social outcomes.”

On whether he’s decided to shut down schools, to WSB:

“It’s a little bit farther down the road. We wanted to get through yesterday and get the new guidance out, try to get folks to really pay attention to that, hunker down a few more weeks. ... I’m going to start having discussions in the next day or two with a great working group of superintendents and educational leaders that we’ve been in discussions with to decide what’s the best path forward for them. And I’ll certainly take their input and we’ll work on that issue together.”