Georgia governor to outline steps to reopen state’s economy

Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to detail his plans Monday to reopen Georgia’s economy during the coronavirus pandemic, as he decides how quickly to ease restrictions that have shuttered businesses and required many of the state’s 10.6 million residents to stay at home.

The governor will announce his plans alongside Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston at a 4 p.m. press conference at the Capitol as he faces new pressure to balance drastic efforts to contain the disease's spread with the growing financial toll of the outbreak.

Pilloried by public health experts and others for waiting for weeks before imposing a statewide shelter-in-place order, Kemp is now facing mounting pushback from critics who say he should immediately restart sectors of the economy that languished during the lockdown.

>>More: Kemp, Southern governors talk coronavirus reopening strategies

>>More: In Monroe County, lawmakers urge Kemp to reopen economy sooner

Over the weekend, Kemp suggested he could start easing some restrictions on shuttered businesses so long as they maintain strict social distancing policies and take other safety measures. He also talked with five other Southern governors about a coordinated strategy to jumpstart the region’s businesses.

Those developments underscore how swiftly pandemic policies can change. A week ago, Kemp said it was too early to tell when he would start to nix restrictions, and he maintained that his focus was on boosting Georgia's testing capabilities and preparing for an expected surge in patients.

Since then, though, the governor was buoyed by a new forecasting model that suggests Georgia has already passed its peak of daily COVID-19 deaths, though experts warn that more testing is needed to measure the scope of the disease and to isolate future outbreaks.

Intown Ace Hardware owner Doug Eifrid sanitizes the counters between customers while standing behind a temporary plexiglass shield in his store Sunday, April 19, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

President Donald Trump has also pressured states to ease stay-at-home mandates and recently released guidelines that leave most specifics on restarting the economy up to governors. Several have already taken incremental steps that could serve as a guide for Georgia’s measures.

>>More: Group protests Georgia’s coronavirus-related closures

>>More: Virus will take a toll on state’s budget

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott will let certain "non-essential businesses" resume operations this week so long as they follow social distancing requirements. Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana said restrictions in his state would start to ease on April 24 in phases.

And in Texas, where officials are racing to quickly restart sectors of the economy, Gov. Greg Abbott encouraged retailers to adopt a “to go” model to reopen sooner as he loosened restrictions on surgeries imposed when hospitals prepared for a crush of coronavirus patients.

Georgia may also join a coalition of Southern states to chart out its strategy. Kemp engaged in talks over the weekend with neighboring governors about forming the same sort of regional compact already in place between states in the Northeast, the Midwest and the West Coast.

No ‘hodgepodge’

Kemp, who has quietly consulted with business and political leaders, has stressed there will be no return to business-as-usual anytime soon. But he said over the weekend that restaurants and stores might be required to take new precautions to resume operations, such as capacity limits and strict hygiene rules.

A small group of protesters turned out on Sunday, April 19, 2020, at the Cherokee County Courthouse in Canton. (Photo: Ben Hendren / Special to the AJC)

Credit: Ben Hendren / Special to the AJC

Credit: Ben Hendren / Special to the AJC

He also expressed reluctance to return to a “hodgepodge approach” that existed in Georgia for weeks before he instituted a statewide standard, though he told 11Alive that he’s likely to exempt the region around Albany that’s become an epicenter of one of Georgia’s larger outbreaks.

Still, underlying challenges will complicate Georgia's efforts to resume economic activity. Scientists warn there's still much unknown about the lethality or infection rate of the coronavirus, and Georgia trails all but a handful of states in testing for the disease.

The governor’s plan emerges amid simmering frustration over severe measures to stem the pandemic that have gutted parts of the economy, blew a gaping hole in Georgia’s budget and led to a surge in jobless claims.

Several of Kemp's Republican allies have urged him to immediately lift restrictions, and commissioners in Monroe County passed a resolution that formally called on him to restart the economy when the shelter-in-place order expires at the end of the month.

And though Georgia has so far escaped widespread protests of coronavirus crackdowns, that could soon change. A group touting itself as “Operation Gridlock” urges demonstrators to festoon their cars with signs and banners on Friday and circle the Capitol calling for Georgia to reopen.

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