Opinion: Reopening City of Atlanta with abundant caution

Atlanta City Hall is bathed in blue as part of an initiative to salute essential workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday, April 9, 2020, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Atlanta City Hall is bathed in blue as part of an initiative to salute essential workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday, April 9, 2020, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Now, more than ever, we must work together as One Atlanta to reopen our great city. In the process, we need to remain as diligent and compassionate as we are determined.

Cities and states around the country are loosening restrictions, yet our country continues to feel the impact of COVID-19 as infections and deaths mount.

Atlanta is especially vulnerable: We are home to many residents with underlying health concerns. We also have a large population of African Americans, who experience greater COVID-19 disparities than other populations.

We owe it to our communities to use science-based evidence as we look to reopen. If we move too fast, we could be forced to slam the brakes on the progress we are striving to achieve and suffer more loss and endure greater restrictions, as other places have experienced.

The good news is that we have the foundation for a sound and thoughtful plan to reopen our City, based on recommendations in the report of the Advisory Council for Reopening Atlanta. The report includes evidence-based recommendations for the safe and data-driven reopening of the City.

The report also draws from the findings of a resident survey which prompted more than 15,700 responses from Atlantans, who overwhelmingly indicated that they felt unwilling to go to most businesses and venue types.

Approximately 97% of respondents said they will not feel safe going to various venues after reopening without taking their own protective measures, such as wearing a face mask, hand washing, avoiding crowds, and wearing their own personal protective equipment.

Overwhelmingly, the respondents also indicated that they would be willing to wear a face mask if required to do so by a workplace or business establishment.

The report outlined three core focus areas for reopening: Establish and track clear metrics to signal when the city can more safely reopen; safety measures that should be taken by residents and businesses; and how our operations or routines may need to be adjusted.

These benchmarks will enable us, in partnership with the Georgia Department of Public Health, Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency and other agencies, to identify resurgences of COVID-19, and provide an early warning system in the event safety measures and restrictions need to be re-imposed.

The findings and recommendations in the report provided us with safe and practical guidelines to inform our decision last week to release a five-phased Reopening Plan for our City.

The reopening phases are based on milestone metrics and recent data, not arbitrary dates. It is possible that if new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue along the current downward trend, we could shift from the current Stay at Home Phase (1) and into Phase 2 this week.

During Phase 2, the “easing” phase, we will continue to be cautious and vigilant, but will allow private, small groups of 10 or fewer to meet with social distancing requirements.

We would also open more recreational options, following CDC guidelines for social distancing and other precautions, for our residents. This could include allowing singles tennis matches; a limited reopening of our golf courses; and lap swimming at our aquatic centers.

Reopening activity will be made with great caution and safety measures in place, out of our concern for the health and safety of our residents and the viability of our businesses and organizations throughout our City.

Atlanta is an international destination whose economy is driven by our conventions, hotels, restaurants, sports arenas, cultural institutions, performance venues and nightclubs. We know how essential it is for our businesses and world-class schools, universities, and hospitals to remain operating.

In the weeks to come, a lot of eyes, in Atlanta and across the nation, will be watching the steps we take and the progress we make.

We will continue our public dialogue as we navigate this new normal. And we will supplement the state’s reopening criteria with additional, voluntary guidelines, and we will continue to work with public and private partners to modify plans where needed. It is inevitable that some precautionary measures will be with us indefinitely.

As a mother of four, teleworking from home, I understand the desire to get out and resume regular activities. But if cabin fever is your only struggle at this time, I urge you to consider yourself fortunate and continue to think of others. Over time, I am confident that, together, we will fully reopen our City and ensure the well-being of all our residents.

Read the Reopening Plan and the Advisory Council for Reopening Atlanta's Plan online.

Keisha Lance Bottoms is mayor, City of Atlanta.