OPINION: Georgia’s reopening shuffle. A dance into the COVID-19 unknown

As I typed this column Thursday afternoon, a news flash popped up on AJC.com saying a tornado had been spotted in central Georgia.

Well, why not? It’s dark and gloomy outside, so why shouldn’t Mother Nature throw another thunderbolt into the perilous environment in which we exist.

I see that the terms “surreal” and “COVID-19” are paired up 42 million times in a Google search. I suppose that’s because the overwhelming nature of this pandemic has left us gob-smacked.

As the month of March was ending and the public was stunned and numb, Emory University infectious disease expert Dr. Carlos del Rio trotted out the slogan "erase April."

“The most important thing we can do is stay home,” he said. “Staying home saves lives.”

Projections were that the state's death rate would peak with 84 deaths on April 23. But the peak apparently reached about half that and has dropped the past week, according to state figures. And the hospitals were not overloaded. People largely stayed home and flattened the curve.

April is now mostly erased. What we hoped for a month ago has largely occurred, as far as the epidemiological graphs go. The worst has not happened. At least not yet.

Still, the light at the end of our collective tunnel remains dim. April’s end leaves us still mired in limbo without solid, reassuring answers.

Just look at the events of the last week if you want to get a good case of Whipsaw.

As the week began, an effort called “Reopen GA — Operation Gridlock” was scheduled to converge on the state Capitol to tell Gov. Brian Kemp to open things up. The activists were weary of being told to stay in place and having commerce hogtied.

The protest was to mimic a previous event in Michigan, where honking cars clogged the streets, people waved Don’t Tread on Me flags, and the requisite camouflage dudes with AR-15s stood around in an effort to own the Libs.

Governor Shotgun beat the protesters to the punch. On Monday, he stood outside the Capitol to announce he was loosening things up, letting bowlers bowl, barbers barber, tattooists tattoo and hairstylists style. This is set to go into effect today.

By the coming Monday, April 27, Georgians will be able to sit down in a restaurant or a movie theater under the governor’s plan. Taverns and nightclubs won’t reopen yet because drunks aren’t real great at social distancing.

» PREVIOUSLY FROM TORPY | COVID-19 dilemma: Demanding freedom, even if it kills us

» ALSO FROM TORPY | When stubborn individualism clashes with a stubborner virus

“By taking this measured action, we will get Georgians back to work safely without undermining the progress that we have all made in the battle against COVID-19,” Kemp said.

Progress? That seemed like news to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, to Dr. del Rio and, most of all, to the fellow who helped Kemp acquire his job — President Donald Trump.

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

So, is Trump hinting that our Gubner doesn’t want to protect lives? Wasn’t the president the guy tweeting that all these states needed to be LIBERATED?

I’m sure our governor thought his actions were going to make the Big Guy in Washington smile.

After Trump’s slapdown, an obviously confused Kemp was left fumbling with his own iPhone, tweeting, “Earlier today, I discussed Georgia’s plan to reopen shuttered businesses for limited operations with @POTUS. I appreciate his bold leadership and insight during these difficult times and the framework provided by the White House to safely move states forward.”

What was the presidential change of pace? Was it Trump just changing his mind, as he does, often mid-sentence? Or was it getting back at Kemp for appointing Kelly Loeffler to the U.S. Senate, rather than Trump’s guy, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins?

The Collins campaign gleefully ran with it.

"Poor Kelly did this to herself. She asked Brian to help her across the political street and they both got hit by a bus," said the always acerbic Collins spokesman, Dan McLagan. "Which then got backed over them. And caught fire."

Ouch. Trump even ramped up his attacks against Kemp the next day.

But aside from the diversion of watching bizarro politics, there are very real and wrenching decisions that must be made by business people. Many of whom are not ready to open, despite what the governor thinks. In fact, they’re nowhere near it.

Veteran Atlanta restaurateur Bob Amick, who owns several eateries, including TWO Urban Licks, said he has furloughed 100 employees and can’t wait to open up. But he called the governor’s decision “premature.” He has a June restart in mind.

“I don’t know where the governor was coming from on this,” Amick said. “We were in shock when we heard this.”

“The governor is far ahead of where he should be. He didn’t check the environment in Atlanta,” Amick said. “We only have one shot at this. We have to have confidence in testing and in the government and the mental state of the public. Are they ready? We don’t think so.”

He reckons sit-down restaurants might pull in 30% to 40% of normal traffic. At best. Opening up and then having to re-close would be a disaster for most restaurants and their staffs.

Amick said there are perhaps 150 major operators in the Atlanta area. “There’s a consensus in town,” he said. “Monday is not right.”

“Everything we do to make a living goes against social distancing,” he said. “The public must trust themselves. They have to have trust in where they’re going. We trail the world in testing.”

And Georgia also trails most of the country in that. So as I've said before, I'll hold off awhile on getting a haircut.