“What we’ve done has worked,” Kemp said in the interview. “It’s given us time to build our hospital infrastructure capacity, get ventilators and ramp up testing. That’s what really drove our decision.”
Democrats and others criticized the move, warning that Kemp's decision risks spreading a disease that's already killed more than 1,100 Georgians. Some offered a reminder that President Donald Trump was "totally" opposed to Kemp's earlier steps.
Pushing back, Kemp said Georgians “can have confidence even if they disagree” with him that he’s relying on advice from health experts to arrive at his decision.
He also stressed that he renewed requirements that nursing homes and long-term care facilities take aggressive steps to curb the spread of the virus until June 12.
And Kemp urged Georgians to wear a mask in public places, though he and his top health adviser said they can be more flexible when in parks, beaches and other places where there’s room to spread out.
“It isn’t as if a switch has been flipped and everything has opened,” said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the commissioner of Georgia’s Public Health Department.
She added, “We’re moving into this phase carefully and cautiously and encouraging social distancing, wearing a mask in public.”
‘These protocols work’
Like his previous orders, Kemp's statewide mandate bars Georgia cities and counties from imposing more severe restrictions. That's infuriated some mayors and county commissioners who have urged residents to disregard his directives.
“I do understand the other side of the coin so to speak,” Joyce Denson, the mayor of rural Toomsboro, wrote in a Thursday letter to Kemp. “But I also want us all to remember that lives are at stake and if we move too fast there will be a continuous increase.”
In DeKalb County, home to the second-highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Georgia, efforts were already underway to distribute more than 10,000 masks and hand sanitizer to residents.
Michael Thurmond, DeKalb’s chief executive, said sheltering in place is “by far the most successful and effective prevention strategy,” but once that’s removed “you have to redouble your efforts in other areas.”
In a swipe at Kemp, he added: “I sure do miss those Republicans who really loved local control. I really miss that Republican Party.”
The governor said such criticism “comes with the territory,” and he urged local officials to crack down on violators if they want residents to more strictly adhere to the guidelines.
“They have the enforcement powers here. They can take action if people are not heeding the advice that Dr. Toomey and I have put in place,” he said. “These protocols work. People are following them.”
Georgia lawmakers granted Kemp unprecedented powers to take these steps under the state’s public health emergency laws, and the legislative leaders agreed to extend that emergency authority through mid-June.
>>More: Angered by criticism, Kemp defends handling of coronavirus outbreak
>>More: 'Worth it': Why a Georgia lawmaker reopened his restaurants
Over the course of the past two weeks, Kemp has emerged as one the nation’s most aggressive governors in scaling back coronavirus limits.
He allowed close-contact businesses such as barbershops and nail salons to reopen last week if they meet safety guidelines, and restaurants were cleared to resume dine-in service Monday so long as they followed a lengthier set of rules.
His steps have drawn fierce criticism across party lines. Democratic leaders blasted his strategy, while Trump accused Kemp of defying his personal pleas to keep the restrictions in place.
"It is reckless and irresponsible for Kemp to use Georgians as the guinea pigs in a public health experiment that will go wrong," said state Sen. Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia.
“Today’s decision will have consequences — for our overworked health systems, for our struggling essential workers and for our lives.”
And some public health experts cast doubts about medical data that Kemp and other Georgia officials have cited to justify easing social-distancing measures. They warn that ending a lockdown too soon could risk more severe outbreaks.
In the interview, Kemp cited state figures that show roughly one-fifth of Georgia’s coronavirus cases and 43% of the deaths are linked to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities where the virus has preyed on elderly.
His order, extended through June, bars visitors and nonessential workers from entering nursing homes, restricts group activities and meals. and requires any worker who tests positive for the virus to be quarantined.
“I felt like the negative effects of not having our economy starting to open up was beginning to have the same weight as the virus itself, especially if you weren’t in the medically fragile category or someone in a long-term care facility,” he said. “For most of the rest of Georgia, the effect has been minimal.”
‘A long road’
The statewide shelter-in-place, which took effect April 3, included a range of exceptions that let residents leave their homes for various reasons, such as exercise and shopping or working at businesses that comply with state guidelines.
>>More: Kemp poised to lift restrictions, despite warnings of renewed outbreak
>>More: Inside a week that could define Kemp's political career
The order had broad support from Georgians. A University of Georgia poll released Tuesday showed that three-quarters of registered voters back the shelter-in-place initiative, including broad majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents.
State officials stressed that although many of the restrictions are being lifted, residents are urged to maintain social distancing and stay home when possible.
“We’re hoping that people see the value of this without the mandate, that people take the responsibility for themselves, their families, their communities and continue to practice social distancing,” Toomey said.
“People should want to do this,” she said. “This isn’t saying: Go forth and congregate in large groups. It’s: Go forth and continue to take those precautions.”
Kemp’s office emphasized that people over 65 and the “medically fragile” are still under shelter-in-place orders. They include Georgians who suffer from chronic lung disease, are undergoing cancer treatment, or were exposed to the disease.
The measure comes as signs of economic thaw are growing. Large mall operators have drawn up plans to reopen, and Macy's announced Friday that it would gradually open all its stores, starting Monday with retail spots in Georgia and South Carolina.
In the interview, Kemp said he was showered with messages over the weekend from friends and voters who sent him pictures of their trips to stores that had been shuttered for much of April - a sign, he said, of enthusiasm about his decisions.
“We’re running two races. The first is defeating coronavirus. We’re farther down the road in that race. Now we have the race to start rebuilding our economy,” the governor said. “It’s going to be a long road, I believe, but we’re taking measured steps to doing that.”
>>More: Amid conflicts over outbreak's path, Kemp weighs Georgia's next steps
>>More: Poll: Georgians back shelter-in-place, oppose rollback of restrictions
Here are excerpts from the AJC’s interview with Gov. Brian Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Public Health:
On why Georgia is lifting restrictions even though the pandemic has not subsided:
Toomey: "If you look at the Phase One guidelines, it allows you to encourage telework whenever possible and gradually return to work, to move into these other areas incrementally. I'm very comfortable with the guidelines the governor laid out for these small businesses. It relied on a considerable amount of effort on the part of barbershops and hair salons to ensure not only their own safety, but also their customers'. It's not as if a switch has flipped and everything is open ...
“I’m very pleased with the way the data have improved. We’re still seeing cases, and we’ve expected that. But we’ve met the other criteria. We want to keep flattening the curve. That doesn’t require a mandate. It requires individuals to make a commitment continuing these efforts to help themselves and the community.”
On why Georgia is urging residents to wear masks:
Kemp: "The data is looking good, but we've got to continue to get people to follow the guidance of strict social distancing. We're not mandating, but we're encouraging people to wear a mask when they go to places like a grocery store. If you're going to a grocery store, it's a good idea to wear a mask. If you're going to get a haircut, it's a good idea to wear a mask. But if you're going to walk in a park and you can social-distance yourself, or walk on the beach, or walk down the sidewalk, you don't necessarily need to do that."
On the state’s testing capacity:
Kemp: "We've seen great success this week with 10 mobile testing sites, and we're now deploying those to situations that arise, be it a long-term care facility or a business, especially up in Gainesville, to stay on top of potential hot spots. ... Those things are going to come up, and we're in a good spot to deal with them. We don't want that to turn into an Albany situation, and now we're in a much better position to deal with it."
On Georgians worried the state’s moving too fast:
Kemp: "I understand. I'm very thankful for what our citizens have done. We've asked them a lot. But I think they can have confidence even if they disagree with this decision that it's been made based on the data and the advice of who I think is one of the best, if not the best, state public health directors in the country. No decision you're going to make is going to make everybody happy. But it wasn't me just doing this without the advice of Dr. Toomey and a lot of other things we've been considering and following seven days a week, 24 hours a day."
On whether the governor has patronized restaurants or other recently reopened businesses:
Kemp: (He said his daughter Amy Porter gave him his latest haircut.) "I haven't been out to any restaurants, but we've done a lot of pickup. ... But I'm also not paranoid about going out. The girls have been going to the grocery store, they've been doing that for my mom, and they're being careful. They're socially distancing. They've learned to deal with this as well."