Opinion: The lone danger for Georgia’s Masked Man, Governor Shotgun

Gov. Brian Kemp wears a mask and urges all Georgians to do the same as the coronavirus surges. But he resists calls to make masks mandatory. (CURTIS COMPTON / ccompton@ajc.com)

For Brian Kemp it’s all about politics, even in a COVID pandemic

Well, we know one thing — summer isn't going to knock down COVID-19 like we had hoped.

The state reported a new record of 2,946 confirmed cases on Wednesday and then broke it again Thursday with 3,472. And the number of people getting hospitalized has been rising for a couple of weeks.

That means those getting hospitalized probably were exposed to the virus sometime around or after Memorial Day as life began to open up again here in Georgia.

With that in mind, and with Independence Day here, our own Governor Shotgun is on his Magical Mystery Tour, flying around Georgia to urge folks to put their masks on.

But the Masked Man also known as Brian Kemp is not forcing people to do it. He's in a tight space, as wearing a mask has become a political statement, and many of those who voted for him are not doing so.

A couple of weeks ago I witnessed some of that divide.

I found myself standing in a crowd on the Decatur square, watching a crew dismantle the century-old Confederate monument. In my haste to get to the late-night surprise spectacle, I got out of my car and hurried to the event without a face mask.

Faux pas. I instantly realized there was no way I could be near 200 woke, mask-wearing Decaturites without covering my mug. As I said before in a previous column, I didn't want to be That Guy.

So I trotted back to the car to grab a mask.

While we watched the proceedings, it became apparent that while almost everyone in the crowd was masked, perhaps just one of the dozen or so workers taking down the obelisk was. (Don’t know whether they voted for Kemp, but they didn’t look like Hillary guys.)

On Thursday, former Republican presidential candidate and former Atlanta radio talker Herman Cain announced he was hospitalized with COVID, having tested positive earlier in the week. Along with the news story was a photo of Cain at the Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, two weeks ago. Out of 15 or so people visible in that photo, just one wore a mask.

Cain’s staff wrote there is no way to determine how, when or where the cancer survivor caught it. That has certainly been part of the problem. Maybe he had it before the rally and effusively greeted well-wishers. (I can say firsthand, he’s a friendly guy who likes people.) Maybe he caught it there. Maybe he got it later. Maybe, maybe, maybe. That’s the danger of this sneaky, insidious disease. It’s fear, wrapped in uncertainty.

So now Kemp is on a "Wear A Mask" fly-around, issuing a grave threat to Georgia citizens. It's not that old and sick folks might die, or that hospitals might clog with COVID patients. No, his threat is that college football fans won't be able to watch Uga scratch himself this fall.

Gov.Brian Kemp gets his temperature checked before touring the Cutting Board Co. in Norcross on June 26, 2020. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“If people, especially our young people, don’t start wearing a mask when they’re going out in public and our numbers keep rising, that’s going to be a tall task,” he said concerning the prospect of a canceled football season.

Egads! First basketball gets benched, then baseball goes into hiatus, and now University of Georgia football?

The coronavirus sort of took a back seat in recent weeks as protests hit the streets and calls for racial justice abounded following the death of George Floyd.

But COVID doesn't care about any of that. In the meantime, people were getting out more, socializing more, going to bars, restaurants, parks and house parties.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp boards a plane at the Peachtree DeKalb Airport in Atlanta on July 1, 2020. Kemp and Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey will take part in a “Wear a Mask” Flyaround Tour of Georgia, encouraging Georgians to follow the guidance of public health officials to stop the spread of COVID-19 ahead of the Fourth of July weekend. (Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Much of the increase in Georgia came from young adults, aged 18 to 29. A week ago, an AJC analysis determined that age group accounted for 29% of the new cases so far in June, up from 21% in May and 13% in April. New cases among older people have been dropping, as many remain indoors or are careful when going out.

Young people have always thought themselves to be invulnerable and the statistics give them reason to believe that. Out of 25,069 people under the age of 30 who have caught COVID, 15 have died. That’s 6/100ths of 1%.

Recently, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said for each diagnosed case, there are 10 undiagnosed. That means that young age group's 15 deaths out of 25,069 coronavirus cases would become 15 fatalities out of 250,690 cases — or 6/1,000ths of 1%.

As remote as those odds seem, that would be akin to the announcer at the end of a UGA game telling the happy crowd of 92,000 fans, “Thank y’all and as you head on outta here, we’re going to shoot five or six of you. Go Dawgs!”

Side note: More than 2,800 Georgians have died so far and 800 people under 30 have been hospitalized.

Mary Beth McKenna, director of religious education, posts signs on May 23, 2020, ahead of daily Mass resuming at St. Benedict Catholic Church in metro Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

And even though the odds are pretty good for young people to survive, “They don’t live in a vacuum,” said Harry Heiman, a professor at Georgia State’s School of Public Health. Those young folks will go home and then pass it to older adults who are less indestructible. “You’ll start seeing an increase in cases and then an increase in hospitalizations, followed by an increase in deaths.”

Heiman has been critical of the willy-nilly nature of Georgia's response. He's not one of those close-it-all-down guys, but he said that amusement parks and nightclubs are problematic.

“We absolutely need to reopen the economy,” he said. “But we have set up false choices: Either we take care of people or we have to take care of business.”

You can do both, he said. But it is like threading a needle.

“We need to walk back some of the re-openings, and we need to mandate mask wearing because mask wearing makes a dramatic difference,” Heiman said. “Any change we make today takes two-to-four weeks to change this trajectory” of cases.

So, this holiday weekend and thereafter, wear a mask when need be, wash your hands, and be careful with Roman candles.

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