Georgia explores regional effort to reopen economy amid pandemic

Gov. Brian Kemp is exploring a joint effort with other Southern states to coordinate how to jumpstart the regional economy as some critics forcefully push back on government-imposed restrictions aimed at containing the coronavirus pandemic.

The governor said he spoke Saturday with the leaders of five other Southern states, all fellow Republicans, about how to "safely reopen our states." His office said the preliminary discussions involved planning for May 1, after the state's shelter-in-place order is scheduled to expire.

The negotiations coincide with Kemp’s efforts to develop a broader plan that would roll back economic restrictions, and they come as some other states take new steps to give businesses a jolt.

South Carolina is set to reopen beaches and retail stores closed by the coronavirus crackdown, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to sign executive orders that would reopen a range of businesses next week. And officials in Jacksonville, Fla. ended a shoreline shutdown that attracted droves to the beaches this weekend.

>>More: Following possible peak in deaths, Kemp working on when to reopen Ga.

>>More: Kemp devising plan to reopen Georgia for business

Although Georgia has so far avoided the wave of protests targeting lockdowns staged in other parts of the country this week, Kemp has faced sharp calls from some conservatives urging him to take more decisive action to ease restrictions.

Monroe County became one of the first local governments in Georgia to formally urge Kemp to begin reopening the economy by the end of the month, with one commissioner calling his shelter-in-place an "extreme overreach of power." Some state legislators are adding their voices to the push.

“We’re letting fear blind us, instead of respecting COVID-19 and handling it in a more balanced approach,” said state Rep. David Clark, R-Suwanee, who called on Kemp to reopen the economy “not in a few days or weeks – but now.”

The governor already scaled back some limits, while tightening others, with a shelter-in-place order that overrode city and county rules. That meant it nullified local rules, such as curfews and a shutdown of Georgia's beaches, while imposing new limits on some areas that had less severe measures in place.

‘Hodgepodge approach’

If Kemp unveils plans for a broader rollback, he'll likely invoke a widely-used projection from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that suggests Georgia passed its peak for coronavirus-related deaths nearly two weeks ago. Earlier models showed the peak to range from late April to early May.

Still, health officials caution that the projection is but one factor in a range of metrics that should inform the governor's decisions. And they warn that even if the peak is in the rear-view mirror, Georgia still must keep limits in effect or risk another wave.

What Kemp’s plan could look like is still in the works. Some business leaders have suggested that restaurants could open their doors again to dine-in customers, albeit with stringent hygienic requirements and new limits on how many people are allowed inside.

The governor also cautioned that when the lockdown is lifted for other indoor facilities, such as gyms and movie theaters, they would be required to take additional precautions to operate.

"It would be a reopening, but it doesn't mean we're gonna be able to - say like a movie theater, you know - to 100% capacity," he told 11Alive over the weekend. "What that looks like, we're still kind of working through that."

Another key question is whether to phase-in the economic changes by region or across the state. Kemp has expressed reluctance to return to the “hodgepodge approach” that existed in Georgia for weeks before he instituted a statewide standard.

Still, he told the TV station he’s likely to exempt the southwest Georgia area around Albany from any statewide strategy. The region has been the epicenter of one of Georgia’s larger outbreaks, and the local hospital system is straining to deal with an influx of cases.

The governor’s discussions Saturday involved the leaders of Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. Among Georgia’s neighbors, only North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a first-term Democrat, was not involved.

Kemp’s aides stressed there was no formal alliance yet, though it wouldn’t be surprising if one formed. Three other regional compacts are already in place between governors in the Northeast, the Midwest and the West Coast who are coordinating how to ease stay-at-home orders.