In Monroe County, lawmakers urge Kemp to reopen economy sooner

The Monroe County Commission voted Friday to urge Gov. Brian Kemp and President Donald Trump to begin reopening the economy by the end of the month, becoming one of the first local Georgia governments to formally demand a speedier end to coronavirus restrictions.

Garbed in surgical masks and gloves, the commissioners gathered in-person in county offices in downtown Forsyth to debate the measure in front of a handful of squeamish residents.

“If you feel comfortable and safe going back to work, then dangit, you should be able to do that,” said Commissioner George Emami.

“I may be placing my bet in the wrong spot, but from the people I’m interacting with, I feel like there’s an overwhelming number of people scared to speak their mind who feel very strongly.”

More: Kemp devising plan to reopen Georgia for business

The lone opponent on the five-member board, Commissioner Larry Evans, pleaded with his colleagues to be more cautious about a disease “spreading like wildfire.”

The governor has quietly begun planning to reopen Georgia for business weeks ahead of the expected peak of the coronavirus pandemic, and has met with business and political leaders about how soon to start lifting restrictions.

The tentative moves by Kemp and other leaders to end the lockdown have raised concerns from public health experts who worry that acting too soon could undermine efforts to combat the virus and could trigger new waves of the outbreak.

But Kemp's deliberations coincide with new guidance from the White House that urges governors to relax social-distancing rules in stages, on a timetable to be determined by such factors as the availability of testing for the coronavirus.

Combined ShapeCaption
Monroe County courthouse

Credit: Bill Rankin

Monroe County courthouse

Credit: Bill Rankin

Combined ShapeCaption
Monroe County courthouse

Credit: Bill Rankin

Credit: Bill Rankin

The vote Friday offers a glimpse of the tension over whether to reopen parts of the economy before widespread testing and other safety measures take effect. It reached a boiling point in Michigan and a handful of other states this week where conservative demonstrators rallied against lockdown orders.

Just northwest of Macon along I-75, rural Monroe County is so conservative that Trump carried it by more than two-thirds of the vote in 2016 and Kemp captured it by an even greater margin two years later. (It was also one of only two counties Kemp lost in the GOP runoff, though for parochial and not political reasons.)

Home to nearly 30,000 residents, Monroe hasn't escaped the disease. The county reported its first Covid-19 case on March 20 and now has at least 15 confirmed cases and one death. But local lawmakers contend the economic wrath of the shutdown has been worse than the pandemic's toll.

Commissioner John Ambrose pointed to crowds of people at the local Walmart and Ingles he said largely abide by social distancing requirements. He said Kemp should consider easing his stay-at-home order to let restaurants and retail shops allow a handful of customers in.

“If everyone continues the safety measures, there’s no reason to keep it shut down,” Ambrose told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This is killing our economy. It’s ridiculous. Put us back to work. If it flares up again, we can go back to shelter in place. But I’m growing impatient seeing everyone lose their ass.”

Combined ShapeCaption
A security guard at the Georgia Department of Labor at 223 Courtland St. NE in Atlanta walks past the unemployment certification drop box in front of the office. Unemployment claims have skyrocketed since the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down businesses across the state and country. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

A security guard at the Georgia Department of Labor at 223 Courtland St. NE in Atlanta walks past the unemployment certification drop box in front of the office. Unemployment claims have skyrocketed since the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down businesses across the state and country. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
A security guard at the Georgia Department of Labor at 223 Courtland St. NE in Atlanta walks past the unemployment certification drop box in front of the office. Unemployment claims have skyrocketed since the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down businesses across the state and country. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Like other parts of the state, unemployment claims in Monroe surged since the pandemic forced increasingly strict measures. Some 576 residents applied for jobless benefits in March 2020, a 1,200% increase from the same time last year.

“Many people in Georgia feel like we understand the risks and are ready to go back to work,” said Emami. “Forcing this shelter in place any longer is bordering on an extreme overreach of power and will have consequences that few are considering as they cower in their homes paralyzed by fear.”

The critics of Monroe’s plan warned that officials have only a glancing look at the pandemic’s spread because of a lack of testing. And they worried that visitors along the busy interstate corridor could fast spread the disease.

“We don’t know what is coming at us,” said James Freeman Jr., one of a handful of residents at the meeting. “God help me, I hope I’m wrong. I really hope I’m wrong. But I don’t feel like I am.”

The owner of a local funeral home, Freeman offered a somber warning to the commissioners as they voted.

“Y’all are going to make me rich.”