At the Peachtree Battle Barber Shop in Atlanta, barber and owner Chris Edwards wears a mask as he cuts the hair of customer David Boswell on Friday, April 24, 2020. The first phase of Gov. Brian Kemp’s plan to reopen Georgia during the coronavirus pandemic included barber shops, hair salons and gyms, though not all chose to open their doors. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: JOHN SPINK/ AJC 
Photo: JOHN SPINK/ AJC 

No rest for Kemp from critics as GA launches reopening amid COVID-19

As the state’s death toll from the coronavirus climbed to almost 900 on Friday, Georgians lined up for haircuts, manicures, tattoos and other services no longer deemed nonessential.

It was Day One of Georgia’s attempt to restore economic normalcy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to ease restrictions on many businesses remained controversial, drawing protesters to the Governor’s Mansion. And it was assailed for the third consecutive day by Kemp’s erstwhile political ally, President Donald Trump.

The president denied an Associated Press report that he and Vice President Mike Pence had blessed Kemp’s decision before declaring it “too soon” and too dangerous.

“FAKE NEWS!” Trump tweeted. “Spas, beauty salons, tattoo parlors, & barber shops should take a little slower path, but I told the Governor to do what is right for the great people of Georgia (& USA)!”

» DASHBOARD: Real-time stats and charts tracking coronavirus in Georgia

Trump’s voice has been the loudest in condemning Kemp for allowing certain businesses to reopen less than a month after he had closed them to fight the coronavirus’ spread. Those businesses included gyms, bowling alleys, nail salons, barbers and tattoo parlors, all of which Kemp ordered to employ careful social-distancing measures if they reopened. Kemp is allowing restaurants to resume dine-in service and theaters to reopen on Monday. Bars and nightclubs will remain closed. A shelter-at-home mandate is set to expire Thursday.

Public health experts warned that easing restrictions would cause the coronavirus to spread even more widely across the state. Many businesses chose to remain shuttered out of concern for the safety of customers and employees.

But the establishments that reopened Friday clearly met a pent-up demand.

Matt Maddox walked into the Peachtree Battle Barber Shop in Buckhead shortly after 7 a.m., passing a sign on the front door that read, “Come in, we’re open.”

“These people are hurting,” Maddox said. “If you’re cutting hair or you’re a waiter, you haven’t been working. So it helps get the economy started again.”

But he recognized that business is not being conducted as usual. His barber wore a blue surgical mask. Only a couple of customers at a time were allowed into the shop.

“We ought to do this slowly,” Maddox said. “If things go sideways, they can make another decision and change it.”

A group of people opposed to keeping Georgia businesses closed during the COVID pandemic protested outside the state Capitol on Friday, April 24, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: STEVE SCHAEFER / Special to the AJC

In College Park, Angi Warner went to HairROX for a wash, trim and style, her first in weeks. Her stylist, Warner said, always kept the salon clean. “I was not at all concerned about sanitary conditions,” she said.

“She had her mask and gloves on and did my hair,” Warner said. “I was in and out in an hour. Easy peasy.”

Many businesses let customers enter by appointment only, staggering the times to minimize contact. Lush Nail Bar in Sandy Springs asked customers to sign a consent form, attest that they had no symptoms of the coronavirus, and disclose recent travel — domestic or international.

“We’re being very cautious and taking everything one client at a time,” owner Thomas Vu said.


» COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA

» SCENES FROM GEORGIA’S CAUTIOUS REOPENING


The tattoo parlor Slangin Ink in Chamblee was almost fully booked Friday, owner Gabriel Krull said. Knowing that demand was high, he did not hesitate to reopen.

“I have bills to pay, I have a family to feed,” Krull said. “This is my career.”

As these businesses reopened, the state’s public health agency said 899 Georgians have now died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. That was an increase of 18 since Thursday. Laboratory tests have confirmed almost 22,500 coronavirus cases statewide.

Peachtree Battle Barber Shop in Atlanta on Friday, April 24, 2020, when the first phase of Gov. Brian Kemp’s plan to reopen some Georgia businesses during the coronavirus pandemic went into effect. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Kemp spent much of Friday in South Georgia, surveying damage from strong storms that hit the area Thursday. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the businesses that reopened or about Trump’s attacks on Kemp.

Trump used White House coronavirus briefings Wednesday and Thursday to call out Kemp for acting “too soon” to reactivate segments of Georgia’s economy — despite the president’s support on Twitter for demonstrators seeking to “liberate” their states from social-distancing measures.

“I wasn’t happy with Brian Kemp, not at all happy,” Trump said Thursday, repeatedly calling the governor by his full name as if to emphasize his displeasure. Trump said he was concerned about the safety of Georgians, implicitly suggesting that Kemp was not.

Maddie Nichols, 8, sits in the car as her mother Blythe Nichols (not pictured) decorates it with signs before they participate in a drive-by protest against Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to reopen some Georgia businesses on Friday, April 24, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: Hyosub Shin / AJC

Trump did not mention Kemp at the White House on Friday. Neither did Pence, who recounted at length a conference call with the nation’s governors, singling out 11 governors for their efforts to fight the coronavirus.

Trump even praised the governors of California, Minnesota and Tennessee for taking steps to reopen businesses that were closed early in the outbreak.

“We’re opening our country,” Trump said. “It’s very exciting to see.”

Earlier Friday, a caravan of demonstrators drove back and forth along West Paces Ferry Road in front of the governor’s official residence, many wearing face masks and gloves. A protester dressed as the Grim Reaper carried a homemade scythe and a sign that said, “Kemp You’re Killing Us.”

Kemp did not see the demonstrators or hear their booing or the honking of their car horns. He was away from the mansion.

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Staff writers Greg Bluestein, J.D. Capelouto, Raisa Habersham, Adrianne Murchison and Alexis Stevens, and staff photographer John Spink contributed to this article.

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