#1 Nails at 925 Garrett Street in Atlanta has a note on the front door explaining its closure to the public on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. Gov. Brian Kemp has defended rolling back restrictions on small businesses such as barber shops and hair salons despite federal health officials and many mayors of Georgia cities warning that it is too soon to relax measures meant to quell the coronavirus pandemic. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: JOHN SPINK / AJC
Photo: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Georgia’s reopening plan gets thrown a curve as Trump criticizes Kemp

President Donald Trump threw Georgia’s easing of restrictions to quell the coronavirus into disarray late Wednesday, criticizing Gov. Brian Kemp for acting “too soon” to reopen shuttered businesses.

Trump doesn’t have the authority to force Kemp to reverse his decision. But the president holds tremendous political sway over Republican governors such as Kemp, who won his party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2018 largely on Trump’s endorsement.

“I told the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, that I disagree — strongly — with his decision to open certain facilities,” Trump said in a White House briefing on the coronavirus outbreak. “It’s just too soon. I think it’s too soon.”

Shortly after Trump’s remarks, Kemp said on Twitter that he is staying the course.

“Earlier today, I discussed Georgia’s plan to reopen shuttered businesses for limited operations with @POTUS,” Kemp wrote, referring to Trump by his Twitter handle. “I appreciate his bold leadership and insight during these difficult times and the framework provided by the White House to safely move states forward.”

Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had called Kemp, reportedly in support of his plan to reopen Georgia’s economy this week. Earlier Wednesday, Kemp’s spokeswoman, Candice Broce, said only that the calls “went well.”

Trump’s public criticism amplified a wave of condemnation and mockery of Kemp’s decision to allow certain businesses — among them, bowling alleys, gyms, hair salons and tattoo parlors — to reopen Friday, nearly a month after he shut them down to help curb the virus’ spread. Kemp also said restaurants could resume dine-in service Monday. All businesses would be required to take steps to protect employees and customers. A shelter-in-place order for Georgians remains in effect through April 30 — and until May 13 for the elderly and medically frail.

A bicycle rider pedals past the Master Groom Barber Salon in the 300 block of Decatur Street on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. Gov. Brian Kemp has defended rolling back restrictions on small businesses such as barber shops and hair salons despite federal health officials and many mayors of Georgia cities warning that it is too soon to relax measures meant to quell the coronavirus pandemic. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Already, for many Georgians, the next phase of the state’s response to the new coronavirus was creating uncertainty and anxiety.

“We are scared to death about the new norms, strict limitations and guidelines that will make it impossible to be financially viable,” Justin Amick, the owner of an Atlanta bowling alley, wrote on Facebook. “A rushed reopening could be the nail in the coffin for many companies.”

Before Trump’s remarks, Kemp again defended his plan, even as he acknowledged the unease felt by many Georgians.

“People are hurting out there,” Kemp said during a telephone town hall with U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler. “They’re also scared, quite honestly.”

“This is a different world,” he added, “but we’ve got to continue to live in it for a few more weeks and maybe a few more months.”

Georgia’s death toll from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, continued to rise Wednesday, reaching 846 compared to 818 on Tuesday. More than 21,000 Georgians had tested positive for the virus by Wednesday, almost 1,000 more than a day earlier.

A medical professional collects a nasal swab at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site for anyone experiencing symptoms at the Infinite Energy Center in Duluth on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. The Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale County Health Department conducted 800 tests at the venue, its second large-scale testing event in a week. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: Hyosub Shin / AJC

In the town hall with Loeffler, Kemp said his plan to reopen some businesses complies with guidelines from the White House.

“We’re not just throwing the keys and saying, ‘Open up, business as usual,’” Kemp said. “We’ll do what we need to do to keep our citizens safe. That’s my No. 1 priority.”

But Trump said Kemp’s actions were “in violation” of the non-binding federal guidelines. While criticizing the governor, Trump praised the people of Georgia. “They’re incredible people,” the president said. “I love those people. They’re great. They’ve been strong, resolute.”

“But at the same time, (Kemp) must do what he thinks is right,” Trump said. “I want him to do what he thinks is right. But I disagree with him on what he’s doing.

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


» COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA

» ‘TOO SOON,’ TRUMP SAYS OF GA PLAN TO REOPEN


Trump — who praised other governors during the briefing, including New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom, both Democrats — singled out tattoo parlors, hairdressers and “spas” as unnecessary services until the pandemic is contained.

“I love those people who use all of those things — the spas, the beauty shops, the tattoo parlors,” he said. “I love them. But they can wait a little bit longer — a little, not much. Safety has to predominate. We have to have that.”

Already, Kemp faced criticism for putting Georgia on the leading edge of attempts to repair the economic harm caused by the coronavirus. A handful of other governors, including those in South Carolina, Tennessee and Colorado, announced similar reopening plans this week.

“It’s a bad idea,” CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon at Grady Memorial Hospital, said of Kemp’s plan. “Every public health official in the country has said so.”

“Sadly,” Gupta said, “people may die who otherwise wouldn’t.”

Health care workers help potential patients with their paperwork at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site for anyone experiencing symptoms at the Infinite Energy Center in Duluth on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. It was the second large-scale testing event in a week conducted by the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale County Health Department. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: Hyosub Shin / AJC

Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease specialist at Emory University, said he understood Kemp’s desire to address economic hardships. But he said: “We need to make sure we have appropriate safeguards in place, and individuals need to make their own decisions. Just because the governor says gyms are open doesn’t mean you need to go to gyms.”

The bipartisan National Governors Association released recommendations Wednesday for restarting state economies, but warned that moving too quickly could backfire.

“Opening prematurely — or opening without the tools in place to rapidly identify and stop the spread of the virus — could send states back into crisis mode, push health systems past capacity and force states back into strict social distancing measures.”

Since Kemp announced the relaxed business restrictions Monday, he has been the object of fun for commentators and comedians. His staff declined to respond to the barbs.

Vanity Fair magazine described Kemp as the “frontrunner for the country’s dumbest governor.”

In Esquire, writer Charles P. Pierce said that since Kemp had “given all Georgians permission to infect each other, we’ve got to isolate that place so Georgians don’t infect the rest of us.”

On Twitter, CBS late-night host Stephen Colbert paraphrased a famous Charlie Daniels hit:

“The devil went down to Georgia, he was lookin’ for a soul to steal.

“Then he met Brian Kemp and was like, ‘Nope, got yours already.’”

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Staff writers Greg Bluestein, Jennifer Brett and Helena Oliviero contributed to this article.

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