On second day of state’s reopening plan, Georgians hit trails, gyms

People walk along the Silver Comet Trail in Smyrna on Saturday. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

People walk along the Silver Comet Trail in Smyrna on Saturday. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Mike Carlin had been itching to get back on the Silver Comet Trail.

On Saturday morning, Carlin finally got his chance, as Cobb County officials reopened the popular trail and several parks for the first time in more than a month.

The county bent to public pressure from residents like Carlin wanting to use the Silver Comet despite the continued threat of COVID-19.

“I’m an adult. I will make the decision for myself,” the 68-year-old Smyrna resident said.

The warm April sun beckoned thousands to parks across the region. Saturday also marked the second day businesses such as gyms, barber shops and hair salons, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys could open – albeit with safety requirements — under Gov Brian Kemp’s plan to relax restrictions on a portion of Georgia’s economy.

» RELATED: More reopenings as Atlanta restaurants step into new world Monday


On Monday, movie theaters can open their doors and restaurants can reopen for dine-in service, also with stipulations .

Independent public health experts have warned Georgia is moving too quickly in easing restrictions on social isolation. Cases of the virus continue to climb, as do deaths.

People stand in line for ice cream at Sarah Jean's Ice Cream on the Marietta Square Saturday, April 25, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Saturday evening, the state Department of Public Health said confirmed cases of COVID-19 increased by 725 from Friday to 23,216. Deaths also rose by eight Aduring that period to 907 by Saturday evening.

While Georgia is ramping up its testing capacity, until recent days, only very sick and vulnerable patients, such as people who live and work in long-term care facilities, and first responders and health workers were being tested. Testing availability has been broadened to those with symptoms, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded, however it’s unclear how many mildly symptomatic people aren’t seeking tests.

And scientists know asymptomatic people — the vast majority of whom aren’t being tested — can spread the virus.

“Do we have the resources for a sustainable containment strategy?” Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health said in an interview Wednesday. “The answer is unequivocally no.”

In the spotlight

The governor has been cheered by many Georgia Republicans and business owners. But Kemp also has taken heat from many Democrats and even President Donald Trump who declared the move “too soon,” though The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other outlets have reported Trump initially approved of Kemp’s decision before blasting it in public.

In recent days, the state released new guidelines governing operations for reopening businesses, including requirements on distancing and hygiene.

“The Department of Public Safety says they have received no reports of compliance issues with the new executive orders today,” Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce said Saturday.

» MORE: No rest for Kemp from critics as GA launches reopening amid COVID-19

Even as temperatures rose well into the 70s, the Silver Comet was not as packed as the Atlanta Beltline has been on recent weekends, with the Cobb trail having enough space for social distancing for walkers, joggers and bicyclists.

At the Mavell Road Trailhead, Carlin used the newly reopened path to walk and train the German shepherd puppy he and his wife are fostering. Carlin works at an envelope manufacturer and said he did not find it necessary to wear a face mask on the path.

“We’re all going to be exposed sooner or later,” Carlin said.

Georgia’s reopening plan remained in the national spotlight Saturday, as several cable news shows focused on Kemp’s decision.

Holly Bernard, the owner of No Regrets Tattoo Shop in Loganville, fixes the open sign outside her shop on Friday. Miguel Martinez for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

In an appearance on MSNBC, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said the reopening “is putting all of us at risk, but especially communities of color, where you have a beauty and barber shop on every single corner.”

She also questioned whether Kemp’s latest order was made to shore up the state budget, with fewer people receiving state unemployment benefits if they go back to work.

“That is certainly a consideration,” Bottoms said. The state could face at least a $4 billion shortfall over the next 15 months without more federal aid, according to a recent report.

Kemp aides said Saturday the governor has never expressed cost of unemployment benefits being a driver for reopening the economy.

On Friday, the governor and Labor Commissioner Mark Butler announced new eligibility requirements that allow workers to collect full unemployment benefits even if their weekly wages rise to $300, up from the previous wage exemption of $55 per week. Those making more than $300 per week can still earn a pro-rated amount.

“Our decisions and direction are informed by data and public health recommendations,” Kemp wrote Thursday on Twitter. “We remain focused on protecting the lives — and livelihoods — of all Georgians.”

With new data in hand, Kemp said the state is “taking another measured step forward” in opening closed businesses with limited operations.

Sweat and candy

In Dunwoody, Kyle Vasey, a personal trainer at boutique gym Fitness Together, said he continued to serve clients through virtual and curbside sessions during the shutdown. Vasey said his gym focused on cleanliness before the outbreak, and those efforts are redoubled now.

The former Atlanta Falcons football player said he might have had seven clients at the gym on a normal Friday before the pandemic hit. But on the first day Fitness Together could reopen, he said he had 11.

“People are tired of being cooped up inside,” he said.

Lauren and Kevin Sok brought their own disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer to the gym. Though clients could train indoors, the couple said they preferred to break a sweat outside.

“The biggest thing is (Kemp’s order) gives people the freedom to decide how it is they want to use their time,” Lauren Sok said.

Despite the eased restrictions, Sok said neither she nor her husband would change many of the social distancing routines they’ve adopted.

Rocket Fizz owner Stephan Nelson cleans up his Marietta Square store in preparation for his reopening Monday. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Dining in a restaurant is “a little too intimate,” she said, though she said restaurants have done well with curbside service.

“I won’t be going to movie theaters,” she said.

Stephan Nelson, who owns Rocket Fizz candy and soda shop on the Marietta Square, said his shop will reopen Monday. But it wasn’t an easy call.

The store was never technically forced to close but did so about a month ago, Nelson said, to protect employees and customers. But now more people are coming to the Square, Nelson said, and trying to enter his shop. Meanwhile, online sales have dwindled.

“There’s two more kids pulling on the door right now,” he said Saturday.

Nelson said he generally follows the same guidelines as restaurants. He plans new cleaning procedures, but isn’t yet bringing other employees back to work.

“We’re trying to balance keeping the business alive and obviously making sure that we keep ourselves safe as well,” he said. “It’s definitely a juggling act and something that weighs on us.”