‘We felt ready.’ Some Georgians welcome rollback of virus restrictions

Brian Lambert paints a door as he gets ready to reopen Scoops, the ice cream shop he and his wife, Christie, own in Forsyth. They plan to take advantage of Gov. Brian Kemp’s order to allow some of the state’s businesses to reopen Friday after they have been shuttered in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. “We have to open our doors, or our business will go under,” Christie Lambert said. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

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Brian Lambert paints a door as he gets ready to reopen Scoops, the ice cream shop he and his wife, Christie, own in Forsyth. They plan to take advantage of Gov. Brian Kemp’s order to allow some of the state’s businesses to reopen Friday after they have been shuttered in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. “We have to open our doors, or our business will go under,” Christie Lambert said. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

FORSYTH — The leaders of rural Monroe County were the first to publicly urge Gov. Brian Kemp to lift coronavirus restrictions to boost the economy. They’ll get their wish Friday when a wave of businesses shuttered during the crackdown begin to reopen.

The mayor of Atlanta and other large cities warn of deadly consequences of Kemp’s decision to let barbershops, nail salons and other shuttered businesses reopen, and even President Donald Trump said it was too soon.

But in Monroe, like other conservative parts of the state, cautious preparations were underway to resume operations for a wave of businesses shut down over the past month.

As Friday approached, workers scurried to renovate a popular pizzeria. The town’s go-to barbershop readied for a rush of customers. And the owners of a downtown ice cream store did touch-up work as they prepared to reopen for the first time in a month.

“We felt ready. We have to open our doors, or our business will go under,” said Christie Lambert, who, with her husband, Brian, owns the Scoops ice cream shop downtown.

MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia

MORE: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak

Voices of dissent weren’t hard to find, either. A grocery store staffer expressed concern that even an incremental step could lead to widespread defiance of rules. A motorcycle repair specialist wasn’t sure his bride, who manages a hair salon, should really return to work.

And the owner of a funeral home ominously warned that short-sighted state policies were going to lead to a surge in his business.

“It scares the daylights out of me,” James Freeman Jr. said. “I know we need to get back to work, but we don’t need to die for it.”

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April 22, 2020 Forsyth: John Freeman Jr., owner of Freeman Funeral Home, stands in his chapel warning that opening up the economy is going to make him a rich man to which he is opposed on Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Forsyth. The Monroe County Commission recently voted to urge Gov. Brian Kemp and President Donald Trump to begin reopening the economy by the end of the month, becoming one of the first local Georgia governments to formally demand a speedier end to coronavirus restrictions. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

April 22, 2020 Forsyth: John Freeman Jr., owner of Freeman Funeral Home, stands in his chapel warning that opening up the economy is going to make him a rich man to which he is opposed on Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Forsyth. The Monroe County Commission recently voted to urge Gov. Brian Kemp and President Donald Trump to begin reopening the economy by the end of the month, becoming one of the first local Georgia governments to formally demand a speedier end to coronavirus restrictions.   Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

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April 22, 2020 Forsyth: John Freeman Jr., owner of Freeman Funeral Home, stands in his chapel warning that opening up the economy is going to make him a rich man to which he is opposed on Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Forsyth. The Monroe County Commission recently voted to urge Gov. Brian Kemp and President Donald Trump to begin reopening the economy by the end of the month, becoming one of the first local Georgia governments to formally demand a speedier end to coronavirus restrictions. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

They were a microcosm of the push-and-pull between the extreme measures that public health experts say will contain the pandemic and the pressure to save a faltering economy. Some want to lift the lockdown, some want it tightened — and some were caught in the middle.

“I’m a fence straddler, really,” Claude Sutton, the manager of a local retail store, said with a sigh. “I’m over 60. I’m worried about my health. But then again, I want the economy to kick back up. So I don’t know what to do.”

‘Measured approach’

Just northwest of Macon along I-75, Monroe County is so conservative that Trump carried it by more than two-thirds of the vote in 2016. Kemp captured it by an even greater margin two years later. The weekly Monroe County Reporter features a red “Making Newspapers Great Again” hat on its front page.

Home to nearly 30,000 residents, Monroe has at least 15 known cases of the disease and one reported death — a relatively low infection rate that led confident county commissioners to deliver an unmistakable message to Kemp last week.

Donning surgical masks and gloves, they gathered in a sparse downtown office and approved a measure demanding that Kemp restart the economy, becoming perhaps the first local government to formally pressure the governor to roll back his coronavirus restrictions.

“We need to have something in place to protect the jobs and well-being of those who are more at risk of death, but there is no other good reason not to send the rest of America back to work in a safe and responsible fashion,” said Commissioner George Emami, who led the charge.

He and other supporters cheered days later when Kemp unveiled his plan to allow close-contact businesses to reopen Friday so long as they meet certain safety guidelines, and restaurants to resume dine-in service as soon as Monday.

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April 22, 2020 Monticello: A resident on Hwy 83 appears to be maintaining a sense of humor decorating a roll of hay with a mask reflecting living in the times of coronavirus on Hwy 83 on Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Monticello Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

April 22, 2020 Monticello: A resident on Hwy 83 appears to be maintaining a sense of humor decorating a roll of hay with a mask reflecting living in the times of coronavirus on Hwy 83 on Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Monticello   Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

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April 22, 2020 Monticello: A resident on Hwy 83 appears to be maintaining a sense of humor decorating a roll of hay with a mask reflecting living in the times of coronavirus on Hwy 83 on Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Monticello Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

The governor called it a “measured approach” to start rebuilding Georgia’s tattered economy, though public health experts and other critics warned that testing in the state was still too scarce and signs the outbreak wasn’t contained were still too many to roll back the restrictions.

That’s what worries Freeman, the funeral home director who was one of the few to speak against the county’s resolution.

Some people in surrounding counties, he said, hardly abide by social-distancing requirements. He’s even had to stop advertising funerals in local newspapers because large crowds still show up to pay their respects, despite repeated warnings from officials to avoid big gatherings.

“Tell me how a barbershop is going to follow all these social-distancing guidelines? And where are you going to get the Lysol?” Freeman said, his voice rising in frustration as he sat outside his business. “I’m not happy. Not at all. I understand wanting to get back out there. But this isn’t the right way.”

‘Day-to-day’

The public rebuke by Trump, who said he was “totally” against Kemp’s strategy, hasn’t appeared to dampen the enthusiasm for those ready to kick-start Monroe’s economy.

The owner of Lee’s Haircutting, the old-school barbershop on the edge of downtown, fielded so many calls that he recorded a voicemail message instructing his customers to line up their cars outside his building Friday morning — and to be patient because a large crowd is expected.

Nearby, the Wild & Rooted Hair Co. announced plans to take customers by appointment only — but closed its waiting room and banned children to reduce the possibility of an outbreak. Another salon around the corner reported that it’s already booked solid for the next week. A local spa is readying plans to offer facials and massages.

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April 22, 2020 Forsyth: Laurie Thomas (left), owner of Jonah's on Johnston, and Makenna Purvis make up a batch of pizza dough on Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Forsyth. The Monroe County Commission recently voted to urge Gov. Brian Kemp and President Donald Trump to begin reopening the economy by the end of the month, becoming one of the first local Georgia governments to formally demand a speedier end to coronavirus restrictions. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

April 22, 2020 Forsyth: Laurie Thomas (left), owner of Jonah's on Johnston, and Makenna Purvis make up a batch of pizza dough on Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Forsyth. The Monroe County Commission recently voted to urge Gov. Brian Kemp and President Donald Trump to begin reopening the economy by the end of the month, becoming one of the first local Georgia governments to formally demand a speedier end to coronavirus restrictions.   Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

caption arrowCaption
April 22, 2020 Forsyth: Laurie Thomas (left), owner of Jonah's on Johnston, and Makenna Purvis make up a batch of pizza dough on Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Forsyth. The Monroe County Commission recently voted to urge Gov. Brian Kemp and President Donald Trump to begin reopening the economy by the end of the month, becoming one of the first local Georgia governments to formally demand a speedier end to coronavirus restrictions. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

“There’s a place in the middle so long as you use common sense,” said Lambert, who said she plans to limit the number of people inside Scoops and encourage people to dine outside when it opens on Monday.

“Initially, the shutdown was necessary, but for how long can we handle it?” she said. “Kemp isn’t forcing anyone to open. He’s giving people the option — and it should be a personal decision.”

Over at Jonah’s on Johnston, a charming pizza place just off the main square, a handyman was at work on a renovation project as a string of customers placed orders for calzones, ziti and Sicilian-style slices of pizza so big they fill an entire plate.

The restaurant opened a little over a year ago, but it’s already a community staple. Laurie Thomas, a schoolteacher who owns the store with her husband, Eric, greets each customer by name during the lunch hour — and offered a happy anniversary to one smiling patron.

While many other restaurants around town closed, the couple decided in March to keep the restaurant open for takeout, primarily to keep the dozen or so employees at work. Like many part-time workers, most don’t qualify for unemployment benefits. Still, it wasn’t an easy decision.

“I don’t know the right answers, and every day I wonder if we are doing the right thing,” said Eric Thomas, who learned the art of making pizzas from summer jobs at Fellini’s in Atlanta while teaching at the Paideia School.

“I am very opinionated, and I don’t have an opinion on this,” he said. “I just don’t know the right thing to do.”

For now, the eatery is relying on steady support from a dedicated group of local residents. It’s not unusual for customers to add whopping tips to small orders. The other day, a man casually dropped a $100 bill in the jar.

The couple has made no firm decisions on when to reopen their doors again to dine-in services — Laurie Thomas calls it a “soft day-to-day” approach — but they’re still preparing for the future.

Just outside the restaurant, a photo-ready mural will soon take shape: a pair of pizza-shaped wings designed for Instagram poses, rising like a pepperoni-flavored phoenix from the ashes of the pandemic.

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