The Jolt: Georgia mayors blindsided by Brian Kemp’s decision to let businesses reopen

When he announced the first steps toward reopening a state economy crippled by the pandemic, Gov. Brian Kemp declared his actions to be beyond partisanship. But during his press conference on Liberty Plaza outside the state Capitol, no Democrat was on hand to endorse Kemp’s decision.

When he announced the first steps toward reopening a state economy crippled by the pandemic, Gov. Brian Kemp declared his actions to be beyond partisanship:

"I can tell you, I don't give a damn about politics right now. We're talking about somebody who has put their whole life into building a business, that has people that they love and work with every single day – working in many of these places."

But during his press conference on Liberty Plaza outside the state Capitol, no Democrat was on hand to endorse Kemp’s decision. Rather, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan went before cameras to present a united GOP front.

Gyms, barber shops, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys, among other businesses, will be allowed to open their doors as of Friday. Restaurants and movie theaters will be allowed to reopen on Monday. All are subject to distancing guidelines.

You'll recall that Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was present for one of Kemp's task force announcements, in pre-social distancing days. Yet last night and this morning, Bottoms and other Georgia mayors pronounced themselves blindsided by the governor's decision. Bottoms on ABC News:

"It appears that the governor's orders supersedes anything that I can do as mayor, but I certainly still have my voice that I can use. And what I'll continue to ask Atlantans to do is to please stay at home. 

"I'm not sure what data the governor is referencing in helping him make this decision. I've not spoken with him. I've talked with the mayor of the second-most popular city in Georgia, Mayor [Hardie] Davis in Augusta. He's not spoken with him. So we don't know what the governor is looking at.

"What I do know is that we have more than 19,000 people who tested positive as of this evening…I'm extremely concerned about the announcement the governor made. I hope that he's right and I'm wrong, because if he's wrong, more people will die."

Mayor Davis, who leads Georgia’s second-largest city, issued a similar warning on CNN.

“I think all of us — those of us who are mayors leading some of Georgia’s largest cities — we find ourselves, quite frankly, shocked by the decision that took place today,” he said, urging residents to take a “measured” response to Kemp’s order.

“We are at a place where we’re putting folks in harm’s way as opposed to taking these grave measures to continue to flatten the curve,” he said.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson declared himself “beyond disturbed” and called the move "reckless, it's premature and it's dangerous."

And Albany Mayor Bo Dorough, whose city is at the epicenter of one of Georgia’s biggest outbreaks, described the rollback as dangerous.

“Unfortunately, many areas of the state which have only a handful of infections are, I believe, too anxious to return to normalcy because they have not yet born the brunt of this pandemic,” he said Tuesday.

Some conservative mayors, meanwhile, applauded the approach. Marietta Mayor “Thunder” Steve Tumlin posted a new itinerary on Facebook that included visits to a barber shop on Friday and a restaurant on Monday.

“Marietta will keep the light on for you as we respect the restrictions to protect and save each other,” the former Republican lawmaker wrote.

And Monroe County Commissioner George Emami, who backed a measure last week to more speedily open Georgia’s economy, talked up the notion of personal responsibility.

“At the end of the day I believe we are all responsible for our own health risk decisions,” he said. “If you don’t like the governor’s decision you still have a choice to stay home until you feel safe. But there are people who have to work to provide for their families.”

***

Again, Gov. Brian Kemp said politics did not enter into his decision. But it is worth noting that reopening begins Friday, the same day that Operation Gridlock -- a demonstration/parade demanding a reopening -- is scheduled to wrap the state Capitol in its embrace. The movement has become cause celebre on Fox News. On the other hand, Morning Consult has this thought today:

By a nearly 6-to-1 margin, people ages 65 and older say it's more important for the government to address the spread of coronavirus than it is to focus on the economy. And as President Donald Trump increasingly signals interest in prioritizing economic interests, America's senior citizens are growing critical of his approach.

***

The AJC editorial board has weighed in on Governor Kemp's decision to allow businesses to reopen. A taste:

Let's also remember the state's weak data gathering. For example, until last week, the state only attributed death to COVID-19 when diagnoses were confirmed by laboratory tests. By omitting symptomatic people who died before they could be tested, the state understated the problem and lacks a true picture of the pandemic.

***

By Friday, bowling alleys and nail salons and tattoo parlors and massage therapists around Georgia could reopen under Gov. Brian Kemp's orders. Movie theaters will be allowed to reopen on Monday -- but another kind of theater will have to wait.

No date has been set for a resumption of this year’s session of the Legislature, which was paused as lawmakers began falling victim to the coronavirus.

House Speaker David Ralston, who was at Kemp’s press conference on Tuesday, said after the event ended to expect an announcement soon on when lawmakers could reconvene. But that doesn’t mean a return is imminent, he cautioned.

Ralston earlier appointed a five-member committee to make recommendations on when it's safe for lawmakers to get back to work. The legislative session has been suspended since March 13, leaving the state's 2021 budget and hundreds of other bills pending.

***

The Seventh District congressional campaign of Republican Renee Unterman has served a cease-and-desist demand on the  publishing outfit that sent out an anonymous mailer labeling the Gwinnett County state senator a "bimbo." Attorneys for the campaign have given Discount Mailing Service of Atlanta three days to name the person behind the mailing -- or face an FEC complaint and a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court.

***

Democratic parties in Dekalb and Rockdale counties jointly censured state Rep. Vernon Jones of Lithonia after he endorsed President Donald Trump — though they stopped short of suspending their rules to formally endorse his opponent.

“No endorsement or pandemic will slow us down from defeating the occupant of the White House and all elected officials who stand with him,” said John Jackson, the DeKalb party chair, on Monday.

Jones, a former DeKalb County chief executive with a flair for controversy, infuriated fellow Democrats when he backed Trump’s bid last week. Party leaders quickly backed his challenger, Rhonda Taylor.

A back-bencher with little influence outside the DeKalb delegation, Jones has recently enjoyed a surge of attention from Trump supporters and signed up C.J. Pearson, a teenage conservative social media expert, to run his communications.

Taylor, who narrowly lost to Jones in 2016, has made it her mission to ensure that the district’s residents learn about the endorsement. Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by a 3-1 margin in the heavily-Democratic territory.

But it’s not yet certain whether Jones will stand for another term. He’s declined to answer questions, raising the possibility he could switch parties or drop out of the race altogether before the June 9 primary.

County officials had limited options to sanction him, aside from a censure or endorsing his opponent. Because he’s a state elected official, the county organizations can’t formally oust him from the party. And the state party said such a move goes against its bylaws.

***

Have an upcoming, online event? Click here to let us know about your virtual campaign event. And click here to check out the calendar.

***

Already posted:

-- The critique of insurance companies may serve as a new theme for Jon Ossoff's Democratic campaign for U.S. Senate, as a June 9 primary coincides with a coronavirus pandemic that has trained intense scrutiny on the shortcomings of the U.S. healthcare system.

-- A federal lawsuit is seeking emergency changes to Georgia's June 9 primary election — including another postponement and a switch to hand-marked paper ballots — because of the health risk from the coronavirus, according to our AJC colleague Mark Niesse:

The lawsuit, filed Monday by an election integrity group and five voters, said Georgia's new voting touchscreens could spread the illness to voters at precincts.

***

An episode of a new documentary series about women of color in politics will feature gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, who were both trailed by film crews during their 2018 campaigns.

Filmmaker Ava Duvernay is an executive producer of the two-part series, titled "And She Could Be Next." It will air on PBS in June as part of their POV film series and be available to stream.

Democratic Party of Georgia Chairwoman Nikema Williams is also spotted in the trailer, which you can view here.

***

U.S. Rep. David Scott joined a bipartisan group of colleagues asking Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to create a task force focused on COVID-19's impact in rural America.

The panel would help identify challenges the virus presents in more remote areas of the nation and develop strategies and recommendations, as well as highlight available federal resources.

The coronavirus pandemic is already having a greater impact in rural America, the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Perdue, and the Rural COVID-19 Task Force would help address the unique concerns of these areas.

"As of April 6, at least one confirmed case of coronavirus has been confirmed in more than two-thirds of rural counties, and one in ten of these counties have reported at least one death," the letter said. "The virus has reached rural areas and it has now become clear that they are less equipped to handle the consequences."

Scott, D-Atlanta, is one of 26 signers and the only from Georgia. His district also suburbs west and south of the city.

About the Authors

ajc.com

ajc.com

ajc.com