As some Ga. businesses get set to reopen, Trump kicks Kemp even harder

Caption
President Donald Trump delivered a blistering rebuke Thursday of Gov. Brian Kemp. Hours before Georgia takes a tentative first step into a world dramatically altered by a global pandemic.

President Donald Trump delivered a blistering rebuke Thursday of Gov. Brian Kemp, hours before Georgia takes a tentative first step into a world dramatically altered by a global pandemic.

Trump amplified his criticism from Wednesday of Kemp’s decision to let businesses resume operations, beginning Friday, after being shuttered to curb the new coronavirus. Trump’s condemnation of Kemp — during a nationally televised White House briefing — was all the more remarkable because he long had been considered the governor’s most important political patron.

“I told him very distinctly, ‘You do what you think is best,’” Trump said, relating a telephone call with Kemp. “But if you ask me if I’m happy about it, I’m not happy about it, and I’m not happy about Brian Kemp.”

Aides to Kemp, who spent Thursday out of public view following Trump’s initial criticism, did not respond to a request for comment.

On Twitter, however, Kemp defended his plan to reopen businesses without directly acknowledging or answering Trump’s criticism.

“For weeks now, my team has worked closely with the Trump administration and our federal counterparts to mitigate the impact of coronavirus in Georgia,” Kemp said. “Our decisions and direction are informed by data and public health recommendations. We remain focused on protecting the lives – and livelihoods – of all Georgians.”

Kemp’s decision to lift business restrictions was largely symbolic, intended to boost an economy battered as activity slowed because of the coronavirus threat. In early April, when he became one of the last governors to issue a shelter-at-home mandate, Kemp ordered only “noncritical” businesses to close, while allowing others to stay open if they took steps to protect employees and customers.

Late Thursday, after Trump spoke, Kemp issued a new executive order with new guidelines for businesses, including a list of 39 requirements for restaurants that plan to reopen their dining rooms.

By easing the restrictions, Kemp had appeared to be carrying out Trump’s wishes. The president repeatedly said he is eager to restart the economy, and he tweeted his support for demonstrators trying to “liberate” their states from social distancing measures.

But on Thursday, Trump took particular aim at Kemp for allowing businesses such as tattoo parlors and hair salons to reopen while the virus is still taking a heavy toll on the state. Trump said Kemp was not following federal guidelines for phasing in business operations in the wake of the outbreak.

“I want the states to open, much more than he does,” Trump said of Kemp. “But I didn’t like to see spas at this early stage. I didn’t like to see spas opening, frankly, and I didn’t like to see a lot of things happening. I wasn’t happy with it. And I wasn’t happy with Brian Kemp. I wasn’t at all happy.”

An encouraging banner is displayed on a parking garage as medical professionals walk toward the entrance of Floyd Medical Center in Rome, Georgia, on Thursday, April 23, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)
Caption
An encouraging banner is displayed on a parking garage as medical professionals walk toward the entrance of Floyd Medical Center in Rome, Georgia, on Thursday, April 23, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)

During the briefing, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence praised by name the governors of at least seven other states. Trump reserved his only criticism for Kemp, repeatedly calling out the governor’s full name for emphasis.

“I could have done something about it if I wanted to, but I said let the governors do it,” Trump said. “But I wasn’t happy with Brian Kemp.”

“I said, ‘You make your own decision, you’re not in the guidelines, but I’m letting you make your own decision. I want the people to be safe, and I want the people in Georgia to be safe, and I don’t want this thing to flare up because you are deciding to do something that is not in the guidelines.’”

As Trump spoke, Georgia released a new count of deaths and illnesses from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The death toll reached 881, up by 35 from Wednesday. Almost 22,000 COVID-19 diagnoses have been confirmed by laboratory tests.


» COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA

» 'NOT HAPPY' | Trump blasts Kemp's rollback plan again


It was unclear Thursday how many business owners would accept Kemp’s invitation to resume operations. Also uncertain was whether customers would return even if the businesses reopened their doors.

Some establishments, such as hair salons and bowling alleys, said they would open again for the first time in weeks. Restaurants were split on whether to resume dine-in service, beginning Monday, and many other businesses said it’s too soon to return to anything approaching normal.

The governor is allowing business operations to resume despite computer models that indicate Georgia will continue to experience casualties well into May.

A widely cited model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicts Georgia will hit its peak of COVID-19 deaths per day with 59 on April 29, one day after reaching peak demands on hospital resources. Kemp had cited an earlier, more optimistic projection when he began preparations for reopening the Georgia economy.

Grady ambulance crews wear masks and protective clothing like this emergency medical services worker does on Thursday, April 23, 2020, during a call on Wilbur Avenue in Atlanta. (JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)
Caption
Grady ambulance crews wear masks and protective clothing like this emergency medical services worker does on Thursday, April 23, 2020, during a call on Wilbur Avenue in Atlanta. (JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)

In an interview Thursday, Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metric sciences at the institute, said if Georgia lifts social distancing measures, “you allow the virus to come back, you have to shut down again, and the economy would suffer even more from a second shutdown.”

“A lot of people have sacrificed, and we shouldn’t lose those sacrifices,” Mokdad said. “It would be a waste. A lot of people in Georgia died, and it is better to be conservative right now.”

Another projection, by the University of Texas at Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, predicts that Georgia’s death toll may exceed 1,600 by mid-May.

Scaling back social distancing requirements could extend the virus’ impact, said Dr. Harry J. Heiman, an epidemiologist at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health.

“We’re at very high risk for doing that,” Heiman said. “Hindsight is 20/20. I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball, but public health is about assuring the conditions for people to be healthy and protecting the public’s health. It seems to me the responsible decision now is to make sure we know where we are, make sure we have the necessary things in place before we start loosening things up.”

Staff writers Greg Bluestein, Tamar Hallerman and Helena Oliviero contributed to this article.