Gov. Brian Kemp will lift some of the restrictions he put in place earlier this month to combat the spread of the coronavirus, saying that his shelter-in-place order and social distancing measures were starting to slow the outbreak. (Read the story here.)
Here’s what you should know:
Q: What will open and what will remain closed?
A: The governor’s order will allow gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios, barbers, cosmetologists, hair designers, nail care artists, estheticians and massage therapists to reopen Friday, April 24 if they comply with social distancing requirements and other safety standards.
Bars, nightclubs, amusement parks and live performance venues will remain closed under the order.
Q: What about restaurants?
A: Restaurants, theaters and private social clubs will be allowed to reopen on Monday, April 27 if they comply with specific social distancing and sanitation mandates. The governor’s office released more guidelines for restaurants on Thursday.
Q: Does that mean the shelter-in-place is over?
A: No, Kemp’s order remains in effect through April 30, and he encouraged “medically fragile” residents – including the elderly and those with weak immune systems – to stay at home until May 13.
It means that people still are urged to shelter in place, though there are broad exceptions for exercise, medical needs, employment and commerce. Brush up on the details here.
Q: The governor just last week said it was too early to talk about reopening the economy. What changed?
A: Kemp cited reports of declining emergency room visits for flu-like illnesses, expanded hospital bed capacity and projections that show Georgia’s peak may be in the rear-view mirror. He also said documented COVID-19 cases have “flattened and appear to be declining.”
There are other factors, too. President Donald Trump has pushed states to begin easing the restrictions, and Kemp has faced urgent calls from some of his conservative allies to start rolling back the limits.
Q: Georgia doesn’t seem to have met the "gating" criteria outlined by the White House. So what gives?
A: The White House task force recommends states shouldn’t phase-in sectors of the economy until there’s a decline in new cases for at least 14 days and widely-available testing. That hasn’t happened yet.
But Kemp said the state is "on track" to meet the criteria and that the expansion of hospital bed capacity -- including the recent conversion of an Atlanta convention center into a 200-bed hospital -- gives him confidence that Georgia can handle a surge of patients.
Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the head of Georgia's public health department, pointed to a “rolling total” that suggests the number of cases has plateaued. She said she’s confident that by month’s end there will be evidence of a two-week decline.
Q: What about testing?
A: Georgia still lags most other states in testing per capita, and experts say the state lacks the testing capacity needed to detect the true scope of the disease as well as the resources required to trace the contacts of infected people.
But Kemp said a ramp-up in testing was in the works, with help from the Augusta University Health System to boost capacity. State health officials also plan to beef up contact tracing, which identifies people with the virus and follows their movements, as they may have infected others.
He said he expects the number of cases to continue to rise, but that the state is ready to cope with an increase because of the boost in hospital capacity, prepared healthcare workers and “community knowledge” of the disease.
Q: Can cities and counties make more lenient or restrictive measures if they want?
A: No. The governor said he didn’t want another “hodgepodge” of local restrictions that proliferated before he instituted the statewide shelter-in-place earlier this month, and his statewide order supersedes any city or county measure.
Some local leaders quickly pushed back. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told ABC News late Monday that while she likely can’t lockdown the city, she will use her pulpit to press residents to stay at home.
“We don't know what the governor is looking at, but what I do know is we have nearly 19,000 people who have tested positive as of this evening,” she said.
Q: What must businesses do to reopen?
A: Kemp stressed they won’t resume operations with “business as usual.” They must meet 20 guidelines set out by the governor’s office, including screening workers for symptoms of the disease, improving workplace sanitation, wearing masks and gloves if appropriate, separating workspaces by at least six feet and teleworking when possible.
Of course, meeting those requirements is more difficult in the cramped quarters of many stores and restaurants – and it’s impossible to socially distance at a barber shop or tattoo parlor.
“The private sector is going to have to convince the public that it’s safe to come back to their businesses,” Kemp said. “We’ve seen some very innovative people out there making those changes to their business practice. It’s what a barber is going to have to do, a hair salon is going to have to do.”
Q: So who is going to enforce these restrictions?
A: The governor tasked the Georgia State Patrol and other state authorities to ensure the requirements are being met, and he also deputized county sheriff departments to enforce the order. In practice, that’s meant very few violations of his mandate.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis showed that state officers wrote less than two dozen tickets for violations over the first two weeks of the order, though they issued hundreds of warnings and responded to nearly 1,000 calls.
Q: What do public health experts say about the strategy?
A: Many are critical of Kemp’s approach. Dr. Harry Heiman of Georgia State University’s School of Public Health said he was skeptical that Georgia was ready for a “worst-case scenario” if the disease re-emerges. And Dr. Marc Lipsitch of Harvard University said it’s “almost for certain” Georgia would be hit again by another wave of the disease.
Dr. Carlos del Rio, an Emory University infectious disease specialist, was more guarded in his response, preferring to praise Kemp for his efforts to scale up testing. But he said he disagreed with Kemp’s rollback, and said the focus should be on increasing tests to help inform future decisions.
Q: What about politicians?
A: The governor’s allies lavished him with praise. U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed by Kemp in December, said it’s a sign there’s a “light at the end of the tunnel.” And Marietta Mayor Steve “Thunder” Tumlin posted an itinerary that included a Friday haircut and a Monday visit to a restaurant.
Democrats were scathing in their response. Stacey Abrams, Kemp’s 2018 opponent, called the approach “dangerously incompetent.” And Nikema Williams, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, said his actions will “make this crisis even worse and put more Georgians at risk.”
Q: As for Kemp, what does he have to say about all this?
A: He gave a lengthy answer when asked about his mindset.
“I can tell you I don’t give a damn about politics right now. We’re talking about somebody that has put their whole life into building a business, that has people they love and work with every single day working in many of these places, that are at home, going broke, worried about whether they can feed their children, make the mortgage payment.
“These are tough decisions, no doubt, and I’ve had to make many of them. And I can promise you I will have to make more. But we also have got to think about the effects on our economy and these individuals from a mental health perspective, from a physical health perspective and literally for people being able to put food on their tables. And I believe this measured approach has got us to the time to trust our people and to keep going after and beating this virus, but doing it in a way that’s responsible.”
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