Georgians will increasingly be on their own to fight the coronavirus in the coming weeks as Gov. Brian Kemp scales back statewide social distancing mandates to benefit the state’s struggling economy.
Kemp’s decision this week to begin reopening the state for business made Georgia an outlier among the states by focusing on the pandemic’s most serious collateral damage. Georgia still ranks in the lowest tier of states in coronavirus testing rates, and the statewide death toll now exceeds 800.
Under Kemp’s orders, businesses such as gyms, barber shops and tattoo parlors may reopen on Friday. Restaurants may resume dine-in service next Monday. And Kemp appeared ready to let a statewide shelter-at-home order expire on April 30.
He faced withering criticism Tuesday, especially from some local-government officials, whom he barred from imposing their own restrictions when the statewide measures end.
Anger toward Kemp was especially acute in Albany, the southwest Georgia city at the heart of one of the nation’s worst coronavirus outbreaks. At least 103 people have died in Albany and surrounding Dougherty County.
“The governor … precluded your local officials from taking action to protect the citizens of this community,” Albany Mayor Bo Dorough said during a livestreamed briefing Tuesday. “A community where 15 funerals were held this past weekend. Where five deaths will be reported today. And where more than 30 patients are struggling for life with the assistance of a ventilator.”
The mayors of Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, among others, also criticized Kemp’s decision. Some, however, saw it as a welcome boost.
In a Facebook post, Marietta Mayor Steve “Thunder” Tumlin thanked Kemp and urged residents to “begin eating every day, breakfast, lunch and dinner at a Marietta restaurant. … Buy, hire, trade and dine in Marietta. Godspeed.”
The virus has killed at least 60 people and sickened more than 1,200 in Marietta and Cobb County.
COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA
In an interview that aired Tuesday evening on Fox News, Kemp downplayed the significance of relaxing business restrictions.
“We’re talking about a few businesses that I’ve closed down to help flatten the curve,” he said. “For us to continue asking them to do that while they lose everything, quite honestly there are a lot of civil repercussions to that. People are tired of it.”
Across Georgia, 818 people have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, officials said late Tuesday. That number represented an increase of 44 since Monday. Confirmed cases of COVID-19 topped 20,000 on Tuesday.
Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities account for nearly two in five of the deaths. Officials said another 22 residents of those facilities died Tuesday, bringing the total to 317.
Despite the restrictions that Kemp is relaxing, businesses that reopen must take steps to protect workers and customers, such as maintaining social distance and providing masks, gloves and other protective gear if needed. But it is unclear how — or whether — those mandates will be enforced.
Easing the rules reflected Kemp’s frequently stated belief that individuals, not the government, can most effectively fight the virus. He was among the last of the nation’s governors to order residents to shelter at home, and when he did, he said he had just learned that people could spread the coronavirus even if they had no symptoms. That finding had been widely publicized for weeks.
As he announced the shelter-at-home order on April 1, Kemp praised the “personal choices” by many Georgians to isolate themselves before being ordered to do so: “It is not going to be government that is going to solve the problem. It is the community at large.”
On Monday, he urged Georgians, especially the elderly and medically fragile, to stay home as much as possible. He said people need to frequently wash their hands, limit errands and other travel and cover their faces in public. He also said the state is increasing its ability to test for the virus and has made sure hospitals can handle a surge in patients.
Aides to the governor did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Kemp is sending mixed messages about containing the virus, public health experts said, telling Georgians it’s safe to eat in a restaurant or get a haircut while still ordering them to stay home.
“This creates significant confusion, undermines credibility and does not provide clear direction to the public,” said Matthew Seeger, a professor and dean at Wayne State University in Detroit who specializes in public health communication. “The result is a reduced trust in government and reduced ability to persuade the public to take appropriate action.”
Few other governors have lifted restrictions imposed since the virus began spreading nationwide in early March. Some have extended stay-at-home orders — in Vermont, until May 15; in Wisconsin, to May 26; and in Virginia, to June 10. In at least six states, the orders have no set expiration date.
In South Carolina, however, Gov. Henry McMaster allowed some retail stores, as well as flea markets, to reopen Monday. South Carolina’s beaches opened again Tuesday.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Monday the “vast majority” of his state’s businesses can reopen May 1 — except in the more densely populated metropolitan counties.
Several other governors have appointed advisory panels to study restarting their economies.
Kemp acted without notifying key members of his own coronavirus task force, including the leaders of committees assigned to inform the public about the state’s efforts to stem the outbreak.
Bernice King, daughter of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and chief executive of The King Center, is co-chair of the task force’s community outreach committee. She said Tuesday she learned about Kemp’s announcement after his news conference on Monday. She is now considering resigning from the panel.
Kemp’s decision to be among the first to ease restrictions isn’t entirely surprising, given his professed belief in individualism and free markets, said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University.
Still, “Gov. Kemp’s decision to reopen so soon is a huge gamble,” Gillespie said. “Some will view his interpretation of the epidemiological data as very optimistic and premature.”
“If we see a surge in new cases — and, sadly, deaths — in the wake of reopening,” she said, “it could be very damaging to perceptions of Gov. Kemp’s leadership.”
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Staff writers Greg Bluestein, Tyler Estep, Brad Schrade, Helena Oliviero and Kristal Dixon contributed to this article.