Georgia eases more virus restrictions, letting bars and nightclubs reopen

Gov. Brian Kemp continued to lift economic restrictions aimed at containing the  coronavirus, signing an executive order Thursday that clears the way for larger gatherings and lets bars and nightclubs reopen in Georgia if they follow guidelines.

The governor detailed his strategy for a “transition to a new normal” at a press conference at the state Capitol as recent data shows an increase in cases that some public health experts warn could indicate a second wave of the disease.

Kemp's order permits gatherings of as many as 25 people starting Monday, and it continues to require larger groups to maintain social distancing. It lets school systems start holding summer courses if they follow state criteria.

And it allows bars and nightclubs to reopen next week if they meet 39 measures, including screening workers for illness, limiting occupancy and requiring regular sanitation. Amusement parks can follow on June 12 if they abide by other limits.

Those businesses have been closed since a statewide order took effect April 3. Live performance venues will remain indefinitely shuttered, and people older than 65, as well as the “medically fragile,” are urged to shelter in place until June 12.

The order is the latest move by Kemp to relax restrictions since late April, when Georgia became among the first states in the nation to allow restaurants to resume dine-in service and let barbershops, nail salons and other shuttered shops reopen.

The governor's critics accused him of putting the state's economic vitality ahead of the safety of its residents.

"I think the governor has pretty much thrown up his hands and let the virus run its course at the expense of Georgians' safety," said state Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn, an Emory University microbiologist.

“I understand the urge to reopen things, but I do not think that people are expendable,” Clark said. “And ignoring what our own data is showing is not a good idea.”

Kemp said his approach was “reinvigorating” the state’s stalled economy, leading him to also invite professional and amateur sports leagues to resume play in Georgia if they adhere to regulations.

“We don't necessarily have to have a second wave. We can keep mitigating and mitigating and mitigating where the risk is so low, it really allows us to continue to open things up even more than we have,” he said. “That's what I'm asking people to do.”

'A lot of cases'

His remarks come as state figures show an increase in week-to-week cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. It's unclear, however, whether it's a statistical blip or represents a significant change.

Pressed on the increase Thursday, Kemp described it as a “backlog” from 15,000 tests recently added to state databases that date to late April.

“We're not seeing anything that's concerning,” he said, adding that cases could potentially increase as testing ramps up, particularly among nursing home residents.

Ray’s on the River has opened for dine-in service. Seating at its vast outdoor space has been modified for social distancing. CONTRIBUTED BY ALEX BEBIAK

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“We expect that population's percent of positives is going to be higher than the normal population, so it's not unusual that we're seeing a little bit of flattening of our downward trajectory or perhaps a little increase on a certain day,” Kemp said.

Experts say that an expansion of the state's diagnostic testing system and a recent, one-time spike in reporting from a commercial lab are unlikely to be the only reasons why week-to-week counts of confirmed cases of COVID-19 jumped 26%.

Infections are likely increasing now that more Georgians are moving around with the partial end of the state's shelter-in-place order, said Dr. Carlos del Rio, the chairman of the global health department at Emory University.

"If a lot of people are out there with a lot of contact, we’re going to see a lot of cases," del Rio said Thursday.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis shows new confirmed cases rose from nearly 4,170 the week of May 11 to 5,260 the week of May 18. 

Preliminary figures from the Georgia Department of Public Health show that the seven-day average of new cases began to rise May 11 and continued through at least May 19.

This measure is based on the date when patients first reported symptoms. Data for the most recent 14 days is incomplete because of a lag in testing and reporting.

'How to live with the virus'

While most restaurants are relying on the 39 guidelines that Kemp’s administration outlined to reopen their dining rooms, some have gone further.

Dozens of businesses in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood recently signed a pledge to follow additional safety guidelines when they reopen, which includes stricter ventilation and temperature-screening standards, and requirements that customers wear face masks.

State authorities have cracked down on some businesses that aren’t complying.

Earlier this week, health officials in Paulding County forced Briar Patch Restaurant in Hiram to close after employees were cited for not wearing face coverings. The dining room remains closed, but the restaurant has since reopened for takeout.

And over the weekend, the Georgia State Patrol issued a citation to Escobar Lounge, a Castleberry Hill tapas restaurant owned by rapper 2 Chainz, for failure to enforce social distancing with large crowds.

Georgia began easing coronavirus restrictions in late April, drawing bipartisan condemnation and sharp warnings from public health analysts that the state could risk a second wave.

Though the rate of coronavirus-related hospitalizations has dropped, experts say it’s too soon to assess Kemp’s strategy. And Kemp, too, has warned that more testing could lead to additional spikes.

But he also expressed confidence Georgia can avoid more large-scale infections if people use “good common sense,” practice social distancing and wear a mask.

“If the virus comes back, I don’t see us shutting down our economy anymore,” he told reporters in Columbus. “We’ve got to figure out how to live with the virus. There are some very smart people doing that every day.”

- Staff writers Ariel Hart and Willoughby Mariano contributed to this article.