A look at major COVID-19 developments over the past week

Travelers ascend to the Domestic Terminal during an early morning at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport earlier this month. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Travelers ascend to the Domestic Terminal during an early morning at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport earlier this month. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The White House has acknowledged that the nation is unlikely to reach President Biden’s goal of having 70% of adults vaccinated by the Fourth of July, fostering in a “summer of freedom.” In Georgia, just 53.4% of adults have received at least one vaccine shot.

Nationally, only 65.8% of adults are at least partially vaccinated.

Still, there are signs that plenty of Georgians will be exercising their freedoms next weekend anyway, despite public health experts’ concerns about the highly contagious delta variant that overwhelmed India’s health system and is threatening another surge here.

AAA projects nearly 1.5 million Georgians will be traveling during the holiday weekend, the vast majority by car. That would be the state’s second-most traveled Independence Day on record and a 33% rebound from last year, when the coronavirus was still keeping many residents holed up at home.

Even as the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises vaccinated people that they can mostly resume normal living, questions arose last week about whether the push toward COVID-19 independence is moving too quickly.

Saying people are “getting back to normal,” Gov. Brian Kemp has opted to end Georgia’s state of emergency on Thursday. Some advocates for the poor are worried that could threaten the pandemic benefits going to those who are struggling. Meanwhile, job growth isn’t happening fast enough to put tens of thousands of Georgians back on payrolls. And, under an order by Kemp, unemployed residents will soon lose federal jobless benefits.

Here’s a look at major developments related to COVID-19 over the past week.

Kemp will end state of emergency this week

Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order Tuesday that lifts the public health state of emergency, starting July 1 — roughly 15 months after lawmakers granted him broad new authorities to respond to the pandemic.

In a special session in March 2020, state lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to give Kemp’s administration the ability to suspend state laws, take “direct” control of civil staffers, close schools, restrict travel and limit public gatherings. The governor’s office used his added powers to relax rules on licensing medical professionals, to ease weight limits on some commercial trucks and to accept increased federal aid for families in need.

Kemp is now joining a growing number of governors who are winding down emergency powers. The order signed Tuesday says the powers are no longer needed as “more Georgians are getting vaccinated, our economic momentum is strong, and people are getting back to normal.”

The end to the state of emergency is worrying workers, citizens and others who benefited from the temporary measures put into place.

During the pandemic, the federal government increased food aid for some families through SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps. As many as 750,000 Georgian SNAP recipients benefited, with an extra allotment of $100 per month or more for a family of four.

But states must have their own emergency declarations in place to qualify for the extra food assistance.

“This is going to severely hurt the seniors around the state who depended on this extra benefit for their food needs,” said Vicky Kimbrell, a lawyer for the Georgia Legal Services Program.

Kemp has said he will issue a new order this week, though he has given few details.

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Travelers pass by in the Domestic Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport earlier this month. It could take months or years for American business travel to return to normal, which spells uncertainty for metro Atlanta’s economy. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Travelers pass by in the Domestic Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport earlier this month. It could take months or years for American business travel to return to normal, which spells uncertainty for metro Atlanta’s economy. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Travelers pass by in the Domestic Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport earlier this month. It could take months or years for American business travel to return to normal, which spells uncertainty for metro Atlanta’s economy. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

A long recovery for business travel could hurt Atlanta

While American leisure air travel is quickly bouncing back, it could take months or years for business travel to return to normal, which spells uncertainty for metro Atlanta’s economy.

In the past, Atlanta’s many company headquarters hosted thousands of visiting employees, salespeople and business partners. The city had about 880 conventions, meetings and events in 2019, driving more than 1.6 million hotel room-night bookings, according to the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is seeing only the beginnings of a recovery.

Instead of boarding a plane, though, many white-collar workers are now meeting clients on Zoom. Employers also are weighing the health and legal risks of sending employees potentially into harm’s way while COVID-19 is still circulating and many people aren’t vaccinated.

Many in the travel industry expect it could be 2023, 2024 or later before business travel fully recovers. If then.

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Job growth isn’t happening fast enough to put tens of thousands of Georgians back on payrolls. And, under an order by Gov. Brian Kemp, unemployed residents will soon lose federal jobless benefits.

Job growth isn’t happening fast enough to put tens of thousands of Georgians back on payrolls. And, under an order by Gov. Brian Kemp, unemployed residents will soon lose federal jobless benefits.

Combined ShapeCaption
Job growth isn’t happening fast enough to put tens of thousands of Georgians back on payrolls. And, under an order by Gov. Brian Kemp, unemployed residents will soon lose federal jobless benefits.

Ga. job growth tepid, even as federal benefits near end

Georgia’s job growth is picking up, but not fast enough for Georgians who will lose $300-a-week federal unemployment benefits this week.

About 15,400 jobs were added last month in metro Atlanta — accounting for virtually the entire state’s hiring growth, the Georgia Department of Labor reported Thursday. The state unemployment rate is 4.1%, compared to the national rate of 5.8%.

The Atlanta region will not recoup all its lost jobs until the end of next year or early 2023, predicted Jay Denton, chief analyst at ThinkWhy, which analyzes employment data.

Georgia’s recovery would accelerate if fewer people had unemployment benefits, argues Gov. Kemp, who ordered the elimination of federal benefits as of Saturday. With 221,000 openings on the state’s job board, Kemp and Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler say ending payments will push many jobless Georgians to accept what is available.

Critics say the jobless need more time and that the cutoff will undermine the economy.

Staff writers J. Scott Trubey, Kelly Yamanouchi, Greg Bluestein, Ariel Hart and Michael E. Kanell contributed to this story.