March12, 2020 Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp speaks as other officials standing behind during a press conference to provide an update on the state's efforts regarding COVID-19, after reporting the first death in Georgia related to coronavirus, at the Georgia State Capitol on Thursday, March 11, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Opinion: The ‘social distance’ between Donald Trump and Brian Kemp

Georgia is about to go very quiet. “Social distancing,” a phrase once owned by the country-club set, now belongs to the masses. The scattered, hand-washing masses.

Many jobs are about to disappear. Some of you have 401(k)s that will take years to repair. If you’re not a little bit anxious, you haven’t been listening.

But as you worry, pay attention to one bright spot that’s emerging out of this coronavirus pandemic. At least for the moment, truth-telling and competence are back in vogue. Damn-the-facts tribalism has been hit as hard as Wall Street.

Accurate numbers matter again, especially when applied to the untested, the infected and the dead.

This may be the most important thing that President Donald Trump accomplished during a very bad week that began with that trip to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

That Friday, the president spoke of his genius for science, a gift from an uncle who taught at MIT. “Anybody that wants a test can get a test,” he said that day – and for many days afterwards. He wasn’t against allowing the infected Grand Princess cruise liner into a California port, but preferred that they stay in international waters.

“Because I like the numbers being where they are,” he said.

On Wednesday, after weeks of playing down a coronavirus taking root in the nation that he oversees, Trump sat down behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office and described the unprecedented steps he had taken to combat the “foreign virus.”

“We have seen dramatically fewer cases of the virus in the United States than are now present in Europe,” Trump said.

White House staff would spend the next day correcting much of what the president said. Wall Street displayed its skepticism with the worst market drop in 33 years, even as a top federal health official told Congress that the administration was “failing” in its effort to track where the coronavirus has spread. Everyone who wants – or needs – to be tested, isn’t. Not even close.

Let us now turn to the state Capitol. Ineptitude can be contagious. Gov. Brian Kemp and his team of expert bureaucrats have gone to great lengths to show they have not been infected.

In two press conferences in his ceremonial office, on Monday and Thursday, Kemp put himself in front of TV cameras. During airtime that totaled more than an hour, the governor of Georgia mentioned the name of President Donald Trump only once. It was not intended as a rebuke, but the absence was glaring.

Each time, Kemp slowly read from a text laden with facts. In Thursday’s session, he noted that a cluster of three coronavirus cases in Bartow County seemed be connected to a local church. As Trump did the day before, the governor urged his audience to keep tabs on the elderly – but Kemp added a personal, empathetic touch.

“I’ve already had this conversation with my mother, to keep her safe, and plan how we can get her what she needs in the weeks ahead,” Kemp said.

More importantly, the governor emphasized his reliance on truth and transparency. “I’m not unilaterally making these decisions. You have a lot of experts and a lot of people who are really smart working on this issue,” he said. “We’re going to continue to follow the facts and the science in our decision-making process.”

He probably didn’t know it, but former Vice President Joe Biden spoke an hour before Kemp on Thursday. Biden gave the speech he thought Trump should have delivered from the Oval Office the night before.

The governor will not appreciate me saying it, but Kemp and Biden used much the same language. “Public health professionals must be the ones making our public health decisions,” Biden said.

At his Thursday press conference, Kemp also brought in Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a confirmed Democrat, to head up an effort to address the spread of the coronavirus among the state’s homeless population.

Epidemics are thoroughly democratic, with a small “d.” To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., infection anywhere is a threatened infection everywhere. It received no public mention this week, but Georgia’s undocumented population will need its own focus as well.

Which brings us to Trump’s reference to COVID-19 as a disease caused by a “foreign virus.” Republicans in Washington have also referred to it as the “Wuhan” or “Chinese” virus.

On March 2, in an early set of instructions sent to state department heads, a memo from the Kemp administration included this: “People of Asian descent, including Chinese Americans, are not more likely to get COVID-19 than any other American,” the memo read. “Help stop fear by letting people know that being of Asian descent does not increase the chance of getting or spreading COVID-19.”

On Thursday, Kemp also pushed back against “numerous constituents that have raised concerns” with his decision to use the remote Hard Labor Creek State Park, off I-20 in east Georgia, to house those infected with the coronavirus but are asymptomatic. “Quite honestly, some people have no other choice,” the governor said. Potential sites for other isolation areas are being identified.

The social distance that Kemp is putting between himself and the president isn’t absolute. On Friday, President Trump declared the coronavirus epidemic to be a national emergency. The governor of Georgia followed suit on Saturday -- an unprecedented decision in a public health care crisis.

A day earlier Kemp had told school superintendents, mayors and county commissioners across the state that they needed to be the ones who decided what doors would be closed in their areas. “Regardless of whether you stay open or decide to close, we will support that decision,” he said. For now, that intention remains in place, the governor signaled Saturday.

The Legislature will be asked to ratify Kemp’s declaration in a special session Monday.

Despite the apparent severity of the situation, there is a reason for Kemp to have decided to let much of the state come to its own conclusions about the coronavirus and its dangers.

Last week, a national poll conducted by Quinnipiac University found that while 68% of Democrats are “very or somewhat concerned” about the coronavirus epidemic, while only 35% of Republicans feel the same. Part of the problem is the lack of hard data. Currently, the state is only processing 50 coronavirus tests a day. That number could rise to 100 a day next week, but it is still woefully insufficient.

But philosophy stands in the way, too. To give up on viral skepticism is to give up on President Trump. And for that, some Georgians will require a level of evidence that, should the experts be right, could become quite painful in the days ahead.

Time will tell. In the meantime, go wash your hands.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.
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