Vice President Mike Pence, left, and GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp wave to supporters Thursday at the Dalton Convention Center. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Pence to visit Atlanta on Friday to discuss Georgia's pandemic strategy

Vice President Mike Pence is headed for Atlanta on Friday to meet with Gov. Brian Kemp and gather with restaurant executives to discuss the state's aggressive approach to reopening the economy during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Republican plans to have lunch with Kemp before a roundtable discussion with restaurant executives at Waffle House's headquarters in Norcross. He'll then return to Dobbins Air Reserve Base for his flight back to Washington. 

It will be Kemp's first in-person meeting with Pence since a public spat with the White House erupted when President Donald Trump strongly criticized Kemp for rolling back coronavirus restrictions in late April.

The rebuke stunned Kemp's aides because hours earlier Trump and Pence both separately voiced support for his plans to let some shuttered businesses, such as barber shops and tattoo parlors, reopen if they follow guidelines. 

The governor, who is closely allied with the president, sought to defuse the dispute when pressed days later about Trump's remarks, and has frequently praised the “unprecedented response” from the White House. 

The stop at Waffle House's headquarters is also noteworthy. The company's  chairman, Joe Rogers Jr., forcefully urged state officials not to ban dine-in services, arguing that the economic damage would outweigh the public health benefits. 

Kemp's executive order allowed restaurants to reopen dining rooms starting in late April as long as they follow dozens of safety regulations, and many Waffle House locations in Georgia soon took that step.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., left, with her husband Jeffrey Sprecher, center, shakes hands with Vice President Mike Pence after a re-enactment of her swearing-in Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Pence will be joined on Air Force Two by U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who has aligned herself with the White House as she faces Republican congressman Doug Collins - a close Trump ally - and 19 other challengers in November's special election. 

Georgia was one of the first states to ease economic restrictions and lift shelter-in-place orders in April, earning Kemp praise from some conservatives but tongue-lashing from Democrats and public health analysts. 

He has touted a sharp drop in hospitalization rates and increased testing as a sign his approach is working, though some experts expect the number of coronavirus cases and deaths to steadily rise now that restrictions are eased.

Democrats aim to amplify that argument with a Friday morning press conference to blast Trump's “chaotic, failed” coronavirus strategy. 

And presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden's campaign said the pandemic has exposed systemic “racial inequities” plaguing Georgia that he plans to address if elected.

“Right now, Georgians need decisive actions from transparent and empathetic leaders, but instead today they will get a photo-op,”  said Symone Sanders, a Biden senior strategist. 

“In the fall, however, they’ll have the opportunity to vote for someone who is prepared to do the hard work, Vice President Joe Biden.” 

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