Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp listens as Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan makes remarks during a press conference across from the State Capitol building in Atlanta on April 20, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Opinion: Governor, reconsider reopening Georgia

“People need to understand that things will get worse before they get better. What we’re trying to do is to make sure they don’t get to the worst-case scenario.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, March 15.

What Dr. Fauci said in March is still true today. With over 54,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, including more than 1,000 Georgians, and over 25,000 cases in Georgia (CDC, April 28), Georgia is knee-deep in the throes of the pandemic.

Gov. Brian Kemp has apparently decided that reopening businesses such as tattoo parlors and beauty salons is more important than controlling the spread of the virus. Kemp and Georgia are now receiving a tremendous but well-deserved amount of negative national publicity regarding that impulsive, non-scientific decision. The Washington Post derisively covered Kemp’s decision with the following opinion column headline: “Georgia leads the race to become America’s No. 1 Death Destination,” retitling the Peachtree State as the “Petri State.”

It should also be noted that Kemp was particularly slow in closing businesses at the beginning of the pandemic, acting as though it were a minor issue that would be quickly gone. On Feb. 6 in a video with Dr. Fauci, Dr. Howard Buachner, Editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Kemp stated “we realize it’s (Covid-19’s) a public health emergency”.

Yet Kemp failed to heed that advice and did not immediately issue an Executive Order, finally issuing a poorly designed order on April 1, nearly two months later. Even then, the holes in the order were obvious. He preempted local government from doing more, angering both large and small cities and counties with stronger stay-in-place orders (such as Atlanta and Tybee Island). And the definition of essential business was questionable. For example, large daycare centers were left open, with children freely interacting and social distancing guidelines easily ignored. Those children can easily bring the virus home to their families.

Mapping shows a rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 cases in our state over the last month. We are absolutely not on a downward curve, but rather experiencing a surge that has not peaked. Both cases and deaths are still increasing.

The national guidelines that were developed by experts, and officially released by President Trump, are clear. Reopening should not start until success is shown with lessening the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

With the COVID-19 case curve going the wrong way, a fragile state health system due to the refusal by the Governor and Legislature to fully expand Medicaid to assist our most-vulnerable citizens, and very little testing available, Georgia is simply not ready to reopen businesses, risking substantially increasing COVID-19 cases and deaths of Georgians.

The order also violates both the spirit and letter of the outstanding work of Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Fauci, the national experts who developed the well-thought-out and balanced national plan to gradually reopen. Thus, Kemp’s order lacks professional grounding and appears to be politically based.

Clearly, this reopening mandate places the lives of individual Georgians at risk, especially those most vulnerable to the virus (seniors and those with risk factors like asthma and so on). Further, due to the Kemp order, all Georgians are at risk of a virtually certain second surge with even more loss of life from COVID-19.

Gov. Kemp was elected with the strong support of business interests and by white voters in more-rural counties. He lost the large cities. Therefore, it’s understandable that he would want to placate these special interests and rural voters, who have not had the outbreaks seen in more-urban areas. Nevertheless, the health of our citizens is more important than getting a haircut.

We urge Gov. Kemp to revoke his Executive Order and commit Georgia to following the national guidelines for a gradual and safe reopening before it’s too late.

Jack Bernard, the first director of health planning for Georgia, has been an executive with several national health care firms. A Republican, he’s a former chairman of the Jasper County Commission. Dr. Douglas Skelton is former Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources, former dean of the Mercer School of Medicine and current chancellor and dean of the Trinity School of Medicine in St. Vincent.

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