Kemp extends restrictions on bars, nightclubs amid pandemic

Gov. Brian Kemp extended some coronavirus restrictions Tuesday as he eased other limits imposed during the pandemic, setting the stage for summer camps to reopen and some state employees to return to offices within a week.

The governor ordered bars, nightclubs and live performance venues to remain shuttered through the end of May, which he said will “enhance health outcomes” and give owners more time to prepare to reopen.

And he renewed dozens of regulations covering an array of other businesses that were set to expire Wednesday, such as social-distancing requirements and limits on large gatherings.

At the same time, the Republican continued an aggressive approach in rolling back other pandemic restrictions, and he said some state agencies would allow limited in-person operations as soon as next week.

Kemp relaxed capacity limits on restaurants that resume dine-in service, increasing the maximum table size from six patrons to 10. He doubled the number of children allowed in a single classroom at a child care facility from 10 to 20.

And he signed an executive order that allows summer camps to resume if they follow 32 regulations, though overnight camps aren’t yet permitted to open.

“We are just in a good place,” Kemp said, “and we want to keep these numbers moving in the right direction.”

‘Health experiment’

The Georgia developments coincide with U.S. Senate testimony from top health experts who cautioned that reopening the nation’s economy too fast could lead to a resurgence of the disease.

Georgia has become an example for states considering whether to reopen, and more than two weeks after Kemp allowed a range of stores to restart, the rate of new cases has slowed while the number of hospitalized patients is on the decline.

But public health experts warn it’s still too early to assess the consequences of Kemp’s initiative, and the governor’s critics say he’s valuing economic vitality over public safety.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms described it as a "massive health experiment" that puts lives at stake, while others point to the rising toll of a disease that disproportionately preys on the elderly.

The state reported Tuesday that the disease has now sickened 34,848 people and killed 1,494. The virus has disproportionately struck nursing homes, and Kemp said roughly 46,000 residents of long-term care facilities have yet to be tested.

Health officials will soon have a new tool at their disposal to respond to the disease. Kemp said Georgia received its first shipment Tuesday from the federal government of remdesivir, an antiviral drug that’s shown promise in some tests. The state Department of Public Health is developing guidelines to determine how it will be distributed.

Amid a ramp-up in testing, state officials have hired new coordinators to expand a team of contact tracers -- staffers who track coronavirus cases to limit exposure -- from 250 to 1,000 within weeks.

State officials urged Georgians who have tested positive or potentially been exposed to the virus to cooperate with the DPH's contact tracing program, which faces a steep set of challenges as it expands.

The agency last week rolled out a new online monitoring tool, the Healthy Georgia Collaborative, that allows people being tracked to plug in their symptoms into a state database via smartphone to help save time. Officials emphasized the data would remain private and the app isn’t designed as a tracking tool.

“Our app is not one that monitors your every move,” said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner. “What our app is designed to do is to allow our staff to monitor people without them having to call.”

'A real risk’

Kemp has taken some of the nation's most aggressive steps to jump-start sectors of business devastated by the pandemic, and he's cast his approach as crucial to resurrecting Georgia's slumping economy.

“I’m focused on two battles,” he said. “One to stop the spread of COVID-19, and the other is the battle to bring our economy back.”

The governor in April lifted a statewide shelter-in-place order for most Georgia residents, though he required the "medically fragile" and those over 65 to stay at home until June 12.

He also allowed barbershops, nail salons and other close-contact businesses to reopen in late April so long as they met safety guidelines, and he cleared the way for restaurants to resume dine-in service if they followed a lengthier set of rules.

The steps drew fierce criticism, as Democratic leaders and public health experts blasted the strategy, and President Donald Trump accused Kemp of moving too fast. (The president later tried to walk back those remarks.)

Other states are also starting to lift restrictions, a growing movement that has unnerved the health experts advising Trump. In testimony, they rebutted his declaration on Monday that “we have met the moment and we have prevailed.”

Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in testimony Tuesday before the Senate Health Committee that “we are not out of the woods yet.”

And Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease physician, said the nation's death toll from the virus -- which now tops 80,000 people -- is likely higher and will continue to mount if some areas of the country reopen too soon.

“If that occurs, there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control,” Fauci said.

Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article.