March 6, 2020 Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp speaks as President Donald Trump looks on at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday, March 6, 2020. President Donald Trump visited the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday after all, after initially scrapping the trip over concerns that a staffer at the agency had contracted the coronavirus. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

‘Too soon,’ Trump says of Ga. plan to reopen economy; Kemp disagrees

President Donald Trump said Wednesday he “totally” disagreed with Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to roll back coronavirus restrictions and allow shuttered businesses such as nail salons and barber shops to reopen this week.

Refusing to reverse course, Kemp said he would still allow close-contact businesses to resume operations on Friday in order to “protect the lives — and livelihoods — of all Georgians.” 

The split between the two allies came as a surprise to Kemp’s administration, and just a day after the president praised the governor’s response to a pandemic that’s killed hundreds of Georgians and sickened more than 21,000. 

Saying it was “just too soon” to let tattoo parlors, bowling alleys and other shuttered businesses reopen, Trump’s rebuke undermined Kemp’s aggressive strategy to restart Georgia’s struggling economy.   

“They can wait a little bit longer. Safety has to predominate,” the president said. 

“Would I do that? No,” he added. “I want to protect people’s lives. But I’m going to let him make his decision. But I told him I totally disagree.” 

The two men spoke late Tuesday in what aides to Kemp described as a productive conversation about Kemp’s approach, and top Georgia Republicans said they had no indication that Trump would undercut his strategy. 

Since announcing the plan on Monday, Kemp has called it a “measured” step even as many public health experts warn that the approach could trigger a new outbreak. Trump’s top health advisers have repeatedly criticized Kemp’s strategy. 

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

“There is a danger of a rebound,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at Trump’s press briefing on Wednesday.

“Going ahead and leapfrogging into phases where you should not be, I would advise him, as a health official and a physician, not to do that.” 

Georgia Democrats, who strongly opposed Kemp’s pandemic policies, quickly highlighted the rift between the president and the governor. 

“You know it’s a serious failure when Donald Trump, whose failed leadership is responsible for how badly this crisis is hitting America, distances himself from his crony Brian Kemp, who is endlessly determined to make this crisis as painful as possible for Georgians,” said Nikema Williams, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party. 

In a series of tweets after Trump’s remarks, Kemp said he was “confident that business owners who decide to reopen” will adhere to a series of guidelines his administration established, including screening employees for symptoms of illness. 

And he signaled he would move forward with another part of his plan that would let restaurants resume dine-in service Monday so long as they adhere to yet-to-be released safety standards.  

‘A different world’

The governor has come under increasing pressure from local leaders, particularly in dense urban areas, who are upset that his statewide order barred them from enacting more severe restrictions.

“We need to, as government leaders, step up and give people an incentive to stay home,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. “But there’s nothing essential about going to a bowling alley in the middle of a pandemic.”

The governor also faced criticism from members of the state coronavirus task force he formed to help guide his response strategy who are upset they were left in the dark by his decision to roll back restrictions

Kemp defended his policy on a conference call Wednesday with U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, one of his top allies, saying that efforts to contain the coronavirus were paying off. 

“I know this is a different world. But we have to continue living in it for a few more weeks, or possibly just a few more months,” he said. “There are a lot of people financially hurting, and we’ve got to do our best to help them out.”

It was a surprising turnaround for the president. A day earlier, Trump expressed confidence in Kemp’s response even as federal health officials took a different tack.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the federal coronavirus response coordinator, seemed to endorse calls by local Georgia officials who have urged residents to stay home despite Kemp’s directive. 

“I believe people in Atlanta would understand if their cases are not going down, they need to continue to do everything we said: social distancing, washing your hands, wearing a mask in public,” said Birx. 

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