Opinion: Governing by persuasion during a coronavirus pandemic



In the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic, we have a situation in which the leaders of metro Atlanta have been sidelined in their efforts to confront it, superseded by Gov. Brian Kemp.

Last Monday, the governor abruptly announced that in four days, small businesses in Georgia that require a great deal of human contact – barber shops, hair salons, tattoo parlors, bowling alleys, gyms, fitness centers, physical therapy centers and such – would be allowed to open their doors.

Movie theaters and restaurants will be allowed to resume business on Monday. Kemp has emphasized the steps as incremental and pointed to guidelines designed to protect workers and customers. But he also made it clear that he would brook no interference from lesser powers.

“This measure will apply statewide and will be the operational standard in all jurisdictions. This means local action cannot be taken that is more or less restrictive,” the governor said.

And so now we have the two most important political figures in the metro area, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, attempting to govern by persuasion – to build consensus around a longer, slower reopening of metro Atlanta’s economy.

Because if things go sideways, their communities are likely the ones that will bear the brunt of a new wave.

Mayor Bottoms has been the most vocal. On cable news shows, she's questioned the wisdom of bowling during a pandemic. She's argued that empty hospital beds aren't an excuse for action that might fill them. On TMZ Live, she was asked how seriously sheltering in her place was being taken.

“What I said to my 18-year-old is, ‘If you leave this house, you better pack a bag that will last you throughout the pandemic. Because you will not be coming back in here,” Bottoms said.

Governor Kemp’s decision last Monday was not an exercise in team-building. Neither Bottoms nor the mayor of any other major city in Georgia were given a heads-up. Yes, the governor is Republican and the mayors are (mostly) Democrats. But the coronavirus is bipartisan and African Americans are bearing more than their share of deaths – particularly down in southwest Georgia.

In a phone conversation on Thursday, Bottoms did not dwell on this, but neither did she apologize for what she’s done since.

“This is something I can’t in good conscience remain silent about. If I don’t speak up on this, then I think people will think it’s okay to go back to business as usual. And it should not, as much as we all want it to be,” Bottoms said.

Nor did the mayor of Atlanta take pleasure in the fact that President Donald Trump surprised Kemp with his opposition to the governor’s plan for opening Georgia. Just as Kemp had surprised her.

Rather Bottoms focused on what Kemp had missed out on. “When you think about urban communities, particularly the African American communities, there’s a beauty and barber shop on every single corner. This is the fact that I would like to have shared with the governor,” she said.

“When you talk about how high our [infection] rates are in the African American community, then you add on top of that – you’re opening up barber shops and beauty shops. I think it’s going to compound the problem,” Bottoms said.

The mayor questions whether barbers and stylists would have access to personal protective equipment – and would know how to use it if they did.

“When I go out to get my manicure and pedicure, they’re often working on multiple clients at one time,” Bottoms said. “We look at our health care professionals and their use of equipment. I think it’s a bit of a stretch to expect people who aren’t trained to work with medical equipment to understand how to use it in just a few days.”

Bottoms said she has talked to owners of large and small businesses over the last few days, and doesn’t get a sense that many are ready to open their doors. She’s also consulting with the city’s law department to explore her options.

Michael Thurmond, the DeKalb CEO, may be a step or two ahead of her in that area. In a virtual session with reporters on Thursday, Thurmond made clear that he wasn’t challenging the governor. Not legally, anyway.

Rhetorically, well, that’s something else. “I will ask, I will urge, I will advise, I will implore – I will literally beg if necessary, to ensure that citizens in DeKalb County remain safe,” he said.

Thurmond is demanding that every resident of the county who enters the public square be masked – something that Kemp has not required. The county CEO acknowledges the need to get the economy moving again, but he wants businesses to sanitize their restrooms after every use. Not just once a day.

He wants employers to recognize that if an employee has a sick relative in his or her household, that employee needs to stay home.

But the DeKalb CEO is attempting to do more than persuade. Like Bottoms, he is out to build a climate.

In the three-week life of the governor’s shelter-in-place order, only a couple dozen citations have been issued to violators. “Our goal with law enforcement was never to go around and arrest a bunch of Georgians for not following the order,” Kemp said. Education and persuasion have been the order of the day.

Thurmond wants to ramp that up. Call it a policy of pandemic shaming. “If as an employee, you find or see persons in violation of the governor’s executive order, then you will report that violation,” Thurmond said, offering up a toll-free number. “If you see something, say something.”

“The DeKalb police department has been empowered through the governor’s executive order,” Thurmond said. “We have no desire to arrest people or incarcerate people, but we will be vigilant to make sure the guidelines are being followed.”

Even if there’s no arrest, a little publicity might be the cure. “Influence has nothing to do with power or executive orders,” Thurmond said. “We will help people make better decisions.”

The last item on Thurmond’s lengthy executive order was another conversation starter – “a rigorous investigation of the COVID-19 outbreak in southwest Georgia and African-American and communities of color in DeKalb County and throughout the state of Georgia.”

Bottoms has concurred.

“There is no logical reason or excuse for the horrible toll of death that’s occurring in southwest Georgia around Dougherty County,” Thurmond told reporters. “There is no rational, logical reason for these things to exist in the greatest, most prosperous nation in the world.”

Thus endeth this report from the sidelines of metro Atlanta.