Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on April 20, 2020, when he spoke at Liberty Plaza, outside the state Capitol in Atlanta, about deciding to allow some small businesses to reopen despite the coronavirus pandemic. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Kemp holds prayer service as some restaurants in Georgia reopen

Gov. Brian Kemp held a "day of prayer" service on the same day that Georgia  permits restaurants to resume dine-in operations, as the Republican tries to tamp down a dispute with President Donald Trump over easing coronavirus restrictions. 

The Republican will join faith leaders and politicians at the state Capitol Monday as some restaurateurs  prepare to reopen their dining rooms for the first time in weeks - so long as they meet more than three dozen safety guidelines issued by the state. 

He’s also scheduled a press conference later Monday, where he’s expected to detail his plans for his shelter-in-place order that’s set to expire on Thursday. The governor has already urged the “medically fragile” to remain home through May 13. 

Most metro Atlanta restaurants don’t plan to open doors Monday to on-premise dining, and several that announced plans to do so have reversed course. But a handful have announced they will open their dining rooms with precautions. 

And in other parts of the state, many owners of restaurants and other shops that were shuttered for the last month were eager to quickly restart operations. 

» MORE: ANALYSIS: Inside a week that could define Kemp’s political career

» MORE:  ‘I’m not happy about it.’ Trump blasts Kemp’s coronavirus rollback again

The governor has cast the rollback, as well as lifting restrictions last week that shuttered nail salons, barbershops and other close-contact businesses, as part of a “measured” approach to reviving the state’s tattered economy during the pandemic. 

That decision infuriated local leaders and public health experts who warned Georgia was far from containing the outbreak, and President Donald Trump, who repeatedly blasted Kemp last week for easing the limits over his objections

‘Life is a gift’

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has quickly become one of Kemp’s foremost critics, and over the weekend she tweeted a graphic of the disease’s death toll in Georgia below the caption: “If you’re getting your nails done right now, please share these noon numbers with your manicurist.” 

Brian Lambert paints a door as he gets ready to reopen Scoops, the ice cream shop he and his wife, Christie, own in Forsyth. They plan to take advantage of Gov. Brian Kemp’s order to allow some of the state’s businesses to reopen Friday after they have been shuttered in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. “We have to open our doors, or our business will go under,” Christie Lambert said. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

But in some exurban and rural spots, local leaders were exuberant. Among them was Watkinsville Mayor Bob Smith, a former Republican state legislator, who urged his northeast Georgia town’s residents to “go to work, assemble to worship” and rev up the local economy. 

» MORE: ‘We felt ready.’ Some Georgians welcome rollback of virus restrictions

» MORE:  A ‘new restaurant world’ begins Monday

“These have been uncertain times, but I believe it is time to turn off the television and all the distractions in the media and get back to the basics,” Smith said in a statement, adding: “Life is a gift. Let’s not waste it continuing to sit at home, looking at four walls.”

The governor was to be joined at the vigil by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston, two Republicans who also accompanied him at last week’s announcement that he would begin loosening restrictions. 

But both legislative leaders instead invited religious leaders to speak at Monday’s service, which was held in the Capitol Rotunda and featured 14 pastors, a rabbi and an imam. 

Among the politicians who gathered Monday at the small ceremony was state Sen. Bruce Thompson, who recently recovered from the virus. 

The parade of clergy members offered prayers for the victims of the virus and urged Georgians to pray for a miracle. Each also prayed for Kemp and other state officials who are leading the state’s response to the pandemic.  

“May our government officials be guided by the king of kings. May humanity come together and love, seeing together your divine image,” said Rabbi Ilan Feldman of Congregation Beth Jacob in north DeKalb County. 

“Comfort everybody, lord,” said state Rep. Mack Jackson, a Sandersville Democrat and pastor. “Bless our frontline medical staff, bless the workers in the grocery store, the truck drivers – all who have become more important than we ever thought them to be.”

Kemp’s vigil drew mocking comparisons from his critics to former Gov. Sonny Perdue’s prayer for rain during the epic 2007 drought. But his allies have urged him to hold a religious service as a demonstration of unity at a volatile time.

State Rep. Trey Kelley, the No. 3 Republican in the Georgia House, wrote Kemp a letter earlier this month calling on him to declare as statewide day of prayer amid a crisis that’s sickened more than 23,000 Georgians and killed hundreds of others. 

“As our state is impacted by the Covid-19 crisis, this is a providential opportunity to ask God to comfort those impacted by this outbreak and protect those who are called to serve in this great time of need,” wrote Kelley, R-Cedartown. 

» DASHBOARD: Real-time stats and charts tracking coronavirus in Georgia

» RELATED: Scenes from Georgia’s cautious reopening: Lines start early for haircuts

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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