Kemp, Southern governors talk coronavirus reopening strategies

Gov. Brian Kemp is exploring a coordinated effort with other Southern states to jumpstart the regional economy, as some critics push back on government-imposed restrictions aimed at containing the coronavirus.

Gov. Brian Kemp is exploring a coordinated effort with other Southern states to jumpstart the regional economy, as some critics push back on government-imposed restrictions aimed at containing the coronavirus.

Kemp said he spoke Saturday with five governors, all fellow Republicans, about how to “safely reopen our states.” Kemp is expected to outline details at a Monday press conference with House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.

The preliminary discussions involved planning for May 1, after Georgia's shelter-in-place order is scheduled to expire, Kemp's office said Sunday. The talks come as Kemp develops a broader plan to ease economic restrictions in Georgia, and as other states seek ways to stimulate their economies.

One influential forecasting model now suggests Georgia is past its peak of daily COVID-19 deaths. But experts warn easing social restrictions too quickly and without sufficient safeguards could worsen the outbreak.

Georgia ranks 42nd nationally in testing per capita, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of data from the COVID Tracking Project shows. Experts say the state still 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 persons to isolate future outbreaks.

Pinar Keskinocak, a professor of industrial and systems engineering and the director of the Center for Health and Humanitarian Systems at Georgia Tech, said shelter-in-place orders acted as a brake on the virus’ spread.

“If you lift the brake, you could end up in a very bad place,” she said.

Sunday afternoon, the state Department of Public Health said the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Georgia grew to 18,157, up from 17,841 a day earlier. Total deaths increased to 681.

A week ago, on Easter Sunday, Georgia reported 12,545 confirmed cases and 442 deaths.

Loosening lockdowns

Kemp spoke Saturday with the leaders of Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. Among Georgia’s neighbors, only North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, was not involved.

A formal alliance hasn’t been set, but Kemp aides said it wouldn’t be surprising if one formed. Similar regional compacts are already in place between governors in the Northeast, the Midwest and the West Coast.

South Carolina is set to reopen beaches and stores closed by the coronavirus crackdown, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to sign executive orders that would reopen a range of businesses next week. Officials in Jacksonville, Fla., ended a shoreline shutdown that attracted droves to the beaches this weekend.

Georgia has so far avoided the wave of protests targeting lockdowns staged in other parts of the country, but some conservatives have urged Kemp to relax restrictions.

“We’re letting fear blind us, instead of respecting COVID-19 and handling it in a more balanced approach,” state Rep. David Clark, R-Suwanee, said. He called on Kemp to reopen the economy “not in a few days or weeks — but now.”

Commissioners in Monroe County, near Macon, formally urged Kemp to begin reopening the economy by the end of April.

The governor already scaled back some limits, while tightening others, with a shelter-in-place order that overrode city and county rules. That meant it nullified local rules, such as curfews and a shutdown of Georgia’s beaches, while imposing new limits on some areas that had less severe measures in place.

If Kemp unveils plans for a broader rollback, he’ll likely invoke a widely used projection from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that suggests Georgia passed its peak for coronavirus-related deaths nearly two weeks ago. Earlier models showed the peak in late April or early May.

Still, health experts caution, Georgia must keep limits in effect or risk another wave.

“We saw how the piecemeal approach of shutting the state down put us behind,” Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at Georgia State University School of Public Health said in an interview last week. “We don’t want to loosen in metro Atlanta and have things flare up in some of the surrounding suburban and rural areas.”

A work in progress

Kemp’s plan is still in the works.

Some business leaders have suggested restaurants could open their doors for dine-in customers, albeit with stringent hygiene rules and new limits on how many people are allowed inside.

The governor cautioned other indoor facilities, such as cinemas, might be required to take new precautions.

“It would be a reopening, but it doesn’t mean we’re gonna be able to — say like a movie theater, you know — to 100% capacity,” he told 11Alive over the weekend.

Another key question is whether to phase-in the economic changes by region or across the state.

Kemp has expressed reluctance to return to the “hodgepodge approach” that existed in Georgia for weeks before he instituted a statewide standard.

Still, he told the TV station he’s likely to exempt the southwest Georgia area around Albany from any statewide strategy. The region has been the epicenter of one of Georgia’s larger outbreaks, putting severe strain on the local hospital system.

Doug Eifrid, owner of Intown Ace Hardware, said he trusts state leaders to make the right decisions, but he plans to keep his store’s social distancing rules in place “until this is well over.”

Plexiglass surrounds the cash register and signs remind customers to remain six feet apart. Eifrid also limits how many people are inside at once, a practice many merchants have started.

“It probably wouldn’t matter if they took off the restrictions,” he said. “I’m not even sure if we would stop. We’ve really learned how to do it.”

Voluntary quarantine

Mitigation of the disease is likely to remain an issue until a vaccine becomes widely available.

As Georgia struggles to obtain more tests, officials might consider slowly stepping down from a shelter-in-place model affecting all persons to a voluntary-quarantine model, Keskinocak said.

Those experiencing cold or flu-like symptoms, even if they haven’t been tested or confirmed to have COVID-19, and all members of their household would isolate until all in the home are symptom-free, she said.

Keskinocak said she understands the desire of many in the public to resume their normal lives. Millions nationally have lost jobs; others worry for the health and well-being of relatives and friends they can’t visit.

But the restrictions bought Georgia time to prepare its hospitals and helped stem the flood of COVID-19 patients. The global medical supply chain is also working to resupply hospitals facing shortages of protective gear and for labs seeking critical chemical reagents and swabs needed to perform tests.

If states lift shelter-in-place orders all at once and life returns to normal, Keskinocak said, states will be pitted against one another again for scarce supplies.

“Those supply chains are not local to Georgia. They are global,” Keskinocak said.