Gov. Brian Kemp during a press conference at the Georgia State Capitol, Monday, April 27, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Opinion: It’s just too soon to reopen Ga.

If you’ve ventured outside lately, say, to run to the store for groceries, you’ve likely encountered a familiar scene: Masks dangling from faces.

Safe distances of 6 feet reduced to mere inches.

Some not wearing masks at all.

That’s what makes Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to lift the shelter-at-home mandate so dangerous.

Wisely, the governor ordered the elderly and those Georgians who are medically fragile to stay at home until at least June. He also extended restrictions on nursing homes, which account for nearly half of Georgia’s coronavirus-related deaths.

As for everybody else?

Well, the governor said, they need to take responsibility and protect themselves.

For some, that might be difficult, even during normal times.

But these aren’t normal times.

As you might expect, the decision to end the state’s most ambitious attempt to slow the spread of the virus drew criticism from healthcare professionals.

One went as far as to say that Kemp could be setting the stage for “a punishing new wave of infections.”

They think the governor is making a mistake.

We do, too.

Clearly, getting Georgia’s economy pumping again is important to Kemp, as it should be.

Rather than lifting his order entirely, Kemp could have explored other options, perhaps following the lead of other states, such as Colorado.

Our neighbors to the West have relaxed the stay-at-home restriction and moved to a new phase, called “Safer at Home.”

Under the “Safer at Home” initiative, most Coloradans — not just the elderly or the medically fragile — have been told to limit social interactions. Gatherings of more than 10 people remain prohibited. And individual counties and cities are allowed to implement stricter measures to help prevent the spread of new cases.

“If we relax restrictions too quickly,” the governor of Colorado, Jared Polis, wrote in an opinion piece in the Denver Post, “we will lose the progress we have made, and we may overwhelm our hospital system, causing hundreds, if not thousands, of unnecessary deaths.”

While Colorado (population 5.8 million) is certainly much smaller than Georgia (population 10.6 million), that state has been dealing with a higher per-capita rate of cases.

Given the difference, one could argue that Georgia might not be forced to take the same precautions that Colorado continues to follow.

But how do you explain the measures taken by other states — even those with fewer cases?

Consider North Carolina. As of Thursday evening, the state had 14,000 fewer cases than Georgia and a much lower infection rate per capita. It will remain under a stay-at-home order through the end of the week.

Or Oregon, a state with 2,510 cases. It’s still finalizing its plans to reopen.

Or even Arizona, which had reported one-third of the number of cases as Georgia. Its stay-at-home order won’t be lifted until May 15.

Let’s not forget that Kemp was among one of the last governors to impose such an order.

And it has come with consequences.

In Ohio, for instance, Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, issued his shelter-in-place declaration on March 22, nearly two weeks before Georgia’s took effect.

As of Thursday evening, that state — home to a million more people than Georgia – had reported 7,400 fewer cases and 146 fewer deaths than in Georgia.

Yet, consumer, retail and other services won’t resume in Ohio until May 12.

So, why, after being so slow to act, is Kemp now leapfrogging ahead of some others in wanting to reopen?

The answer is simple.

It’s all about the economy.

Said Kemp: “I felt like the negative effects of not having our economy starting to open up was beginning to have the same weight as the virus itself.”

There’s no doubt the economy has been dealt a crushing blow by the coronavirus. In fact, there’s a very good chance you know someone who has lost their job – perhaps a neighbor, a family member or a friend – since the pandemic began.

There will be time to focus on economic recovery.

Now is not that time.

As Dr. Mark L. Rosenberg, an epidemiologist, infectious disease physician and former assistant surgeon general from Atlanta put it: “Sick people cannot work. Children cannot thrive when breadwinners die. Hungry people are not healthy.”

Even some Georgia restaurant owners — it’s hard to imagine a group more eager to reopen — think the governor is moving too quickly.

Kemp’s reasoning for wanting to reopen so quickly shouldn’t make any of us comfortable.

“What we’ve done has worked,” he said. “It’s given us time to build our hospital infrastructure capacity, get ventilators and ramp up testing. That’s what really drove our decision.”

Experts say hard data that shows the spread of the disease is slowing are among factors to consider before reopening. Kemp’s argument seems to be that if things get worse, Georgia is ready for a surge in cases.

It’s unclear what data the governor has used to guide his decisions throughout this crisis.

And it still remains so.

In lifting his order, Kemp disregarded the objections of many public health experts and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the very people he should be listening to at this pivotal time in the fight against the virus.

It makes sense that Kemp is concerned about the economy. After all, he cares about Georgians and this place, just like we do. And to the governor’s credit, he has said: “I don’t give a damn about politics now.”

Yet, even recent internal polling among Georgian Republican voters found that their top priority is controlling the spread of the coronavirus and returning life to normal – followed by rebuilding the economy.

Clearly, everyone wants the state to get back to work.

Each of us yearns for a return to normalcy.

But at what cost?

It’s just too soon.

- The Editorial Board of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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