Gov. Brian Kemp appears poised to ease social restrictions that created disruptions for millions of Georgians amid a still-spreading global pandemic.
A month-old shelter-at-home order is set to expire just before midnight Thursday. But Kemp kept Georgians in the dark Wednesday about what comes next in the state’s fight against the coronavirus.
“We will announce more tomorrow,” Candice Broce, the governor’s spokeswoman, said in an email Wednesday. She declined to comment further.
Kemp has strongly hinted — most recently, during a news conference on Monday — that he would lift the shelter-at-home order for all but elderly and sick Georgians. He has spoken forcefully about the economic harm caused by the quarantine, particularly the damage done to countless small businesses.
But by easing the restrictions, Kemp would be disregarding dire warnings from public health officials.
In a study of Georgia coronavirus cases that was released Wednesday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the virus appears to be more dangerous than previously thought for relatively young and healthy people.
The CDC, with help from the Georgia Department of Public Health, studied the cases of 305 coronavirus patients who were hospitalized in metro Atlanta and Albany in March. More than three-fifths were younger than 65, the CDC said, and slightly more than one-fourth had no medical problems “thought to put them at higher risk for severe disease.”
The findings, the CDC said, show the need for continued social-distancing measures — “not only to protect older adults and those with underlying medical conditions but also … persons in the general population who might not consider themselves to be a risk for severe illness.”
» COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA
Easing restrictions now would cause the virus to strengthen and spread, said Rebecca Mitchell, an epidemiologist and visiting assistant professor at Emory University. Mitchell is running as a Democrat for a state legislative seat in Gwinnett County.
On the most recent day for which complete data is available, she said, more than 700 new coronavirus cases were confirmed statewide.
“We’re letting each one of these new cases go out and impact more people in the community,” Mitchell said in an online news conference staged by a group seeking to expand Medicaid benefits in Georgia. “It means they will be in contact with many more people.”
Another participant in the news conference said Kemp would be to blame for the harm his decision caused.
“It makes me mad,” said Dr. Karen Kinsell, the only physician in rural Clay County, nearly 200 miles southwest of Atlanta. “We have politicians who know almost nothing about health and health care and biology making decisions … that are going to kill more Georgians. How can that be OK?”
Georgia’s toll from the new coronavirus continues to increase. By Wednesday evening, the state’s public health agency said, 1,096 Georgians had died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The state crossed the 1,000 mark in deaths just a day earlier.
More than 25,000 Georgians have tested positive for the virus.
Nevertheless, Kemp and his aides have said state data shows the virus’ spread is declining or hitting a plateau. Other experts have questioned their interpretations.
Kemp’s shelter-at-home order prohibited Georgians from going out except for “essential” or “necessary” purposes. It allowed most employers to engage only in “minimum business operations,” and it closed gyms, bowling alleys and “close-contact” establishments such as tattoo parlors, hair and nail salons, and barber shops. The order also suspended dine-in service at restaurants.
Kemp allowed those close-contact businesses to reopen last week and authorized restaurants to open their dining rooms on Monday. Bars and nightclubs remain shuttered.
Georgians older than 65 and those considered medically fragile — including people with moderate to severe asthma, smokers and anyone who is severely obese — are to remain under self-isolation until at least May 13, when a public health state of emergency expires. The General Assembly could extend the state of emergency at Kemp’s request.
Kemp was among the last of the nation’s governors to impose statewide social-distancing measures and among the first to begin lifting them. Shelter-at-home orders have expired in at least five other states, but most issued “safer at home” guidelines urging residents to avoid going out as much as possible. Some states, such as Tennessee and Colorado, eased restrictions in all but their metropolitan counties.
In Georgia, Kemp’s executive orders have prohibited local governments from adopting their own, more stringent regulations. That prohibition has been controversial among local-government officials, particularly after Kemp reversed decisions to close Georgia beaches.
Shirley Sessions, the mayor of Tybee Island, a small oceanfront town outside Savannah, said she expects a surge of beach visitors this weekend if Kemp lifts the shelter-at-home order.
“I still disagree” with Kemp’s pre-empting local regulations, Sessions said in an interview. “But I accept what we’re faced with. And, rather than fighting it, I’m trying to see how we can make it work for our community without being belligerent or argumentative to the governor.”
As the end date of the shelter-at-home mandate neared, Kemp made it clear he was as worried about business owners and their employees as about the threat from the virus. Many, he said, are becoming “desperate” over the restrictions imposed on them and the resulting economic hardships.
“This is uncharted territory,” Kemp said Monday. “But we also had people on the verge of losing everything.”
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