Georgia to allow some shuttered businesses to reopen amid pandemic

‘I don’t give a damn about politics now,’ says Kemp

Gov. Brian Kemp outlined plans Monday to allow some businesses shuttered amid the coronavirus pandemic to reopen by the end of the week, as he starts to ease restrictions that have ravaged the state’s economy to stem the spread of the disease.

The governor’s order will allow gyms, bowling alleys, salons and some other indoor facilities closed under his shelter in place order to resume operations by Friday if they comply with social distancing requirements and meet other safety standards.

And restaurants, which were banned from in-person dining, will be allowed to reopen on April 27 if they meet guidelines his office will release later this week. Theaters will also be covered by those new standards. Bars and nightclubs will stay shuttered.

“I don’t give a damn about politics now,” said Kemp, who said he’s more concerned about Georgians “going broke worried about whether they can feed their children and make the mortgage payment.”

He added: “And I believe this measured approach has got us to the time to trust our people and to keep going after and beating this virus, but doing it in a way that’s responsible.”

» Key details of Georgia decision to ease coronavirus restrictions

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

» MORE:  Map tracks coronavirus globally in real time 

The shelter in place, which is set to last through April 30, remains in effect, though Kemp urged the “medically fragile” to remain at home through May 13.

In other developments, Kemp said more hospitals would be cleared to resume elective surgeries. And he said Georgia would engage in a broader partnership with the higher education system to “double down” on increasing testing capacity.

The Georgia National Guard will also dispatch 10 new strike teams to help administer testing. Kemp urged Georgians to download a free app available this week from Augusta University to screen for the disease.

And the governor, who has wrestled with the idea of banning in-person religious services, said religious leaders can resume them if they adhere to the state’s safety policies.

“I am confident that together we will emerge victorious from this war we have been fighting,” Kemp said.

The governor’s statewide order bans cities and counties from taking more lenient or more severe steps. That means local governments can’t impose their own restrictions on restaurants or bars.

He was met with immediate criticism from public health experts and others who said his decision to speed up the reopening of Georgia’s economy will cost lives.

“If you open up enough it’s almost for certain” the virus will hit Georgia again, said Dr. Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.D. Chan School of Public Health. “It’s just waiting for more susceptible people and more contacts. That’s how viruses work.”

Democrats also blasted his decision as short-sighted. Stacey Abrams, Kemp’s 2018 opponent, called the approach “dangerously incompetent.” And state Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, urged Georgians to take caution.

Gov. Brian Kemp makes remarks during a press conference at Liberty Plaza, across the street from the Georgia State Capitol building Monday, April 20, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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“There’s no way I’m getting a haircut, or dining at a restaurant, even though I really want to,” she said. “This is not good. This is going to get more Georgians killed.”

An about face

Kemp announced his plans with Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston at the Capitol in what was intended to be a show of unity as he faces new pressure to balance drastic efforts to contain the disease with the growing financial toll of the outbreak.

Pilloried by public health experts and others for waiting for weeks before imposing a statewide shelter-in-place order, Kemp is now facing mounting pushback from critics who say he should immediately restart sectors of the economy that languished during the lockdown.

» MORE: 733 deaths, nearly 19K cases of coronavirus verified in Georgia

» MORE: Undercount of COVID-19 deaths means full effects on Georgia unknown

Over the weekend, Kemp dropped hints that he would start easing some restrictions on shuttered businesses. And he talked with five other Southern governors about a coordinated strategy to jumpstart the region’s businesses.

Those developments underscore how swiftly pandemic policies have changed. A week ago, Kemp said it was too early to tell when he would start to nix restrictions, and he maintained that his focus was on boosting testing capacity and preparing for an expected surge in patients.

Since then, though, the governor was buoyed by a new forecasting model that suggests Georgia has already passed its peak of daily COVID-19 deaths, though experts warn that more testing is needed to measure the scope of the disease and to isolate future outbreaks.

President Donald Trump has also pressured states to ease stay-at-home mandates and recently released guidelines that leave most specifics on restarting the economy up to governors. Several have already taken incremental steps that could serve as a guide for Georgia’s measures.

» MOREGroup protests Georgia’s coronavirus-related closures

» MORE: Virus will take a toll on state’s budget

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott will let certain "non-essential businesses" resume operations this week so long as they follow social distancing requirements. Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana said restrictions in his state would start to ease on April 24 in phases.

And in Texas, where officials are racing to quickly restart sectors of the economy, Gov. Greg Abbott encouraged retailers to adopt a “to go” model to reopen sooner as he loosened restrictions on surgeries imposed when hospitals prepared for a crush of coronavirus patients.

Georgia may also join a coalition of Southern states to chart out its strategy. Kemp engaged in talks over the weekend with neighboring governors about forming the same sort of regional compact already in place between states in the Northeast, the Midwest and the West Coast.

A large billboard visible to Southbound motorists traveling the I-75/I-85 connector states, "Heroes Work Here" referring to the medical workers of Grady Hospital. More and more signs and gestures of thanks to medical workers and first responders are evident across the city and state during the COVID-19 pandemic. Known coronavirus infections in Georgia are nearing 20,000 as the state moves closer to a scheduled end to a shelter-in-place mandate.  JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM


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No ‘hodgepodge’

Kemp, who has quietly consulted with business and political leaders, has stressed there will be no return to business-as-usual anytime soon as Georgia struggles to stem a pandemic that has killed hundreds of residents and sickened nearly 19,000 more.

“We understand that these are more than just numbers. These are Georgians that we’re talking about – these are families and communities that are impacted,” he said. “We lift all those up who are battling this virus.”

But he’s suggested that the worst of the disease might be in the rearview mirror, and posited that restaurants, too, will be allowed to resume dine-in operations if they take precautions to limit capacity and adhere to strict hygiene rules.



Still, underlying challenges will complicate Georgia's efforts to resume economic activity. Scientists warn there's still much unknown about the lethality or infection rate of the coronavirus, and Georgia trails all but a handful of states in testing for the disease.

Already, some local leaders are forcefully pushing back. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told ABC News late Monday that while she likely can’t lockdown the city, she will use her pulpit to press residents to stay at home.

“We don't know what the governor is looking at, but what I do know is we have nearly 19,000 people who have tested positive as of this evening,” she said.

Under Kemp’s measure, businesses must meet 20 separate guidelines to reopen. They include screening employees for signs of illness, requiring more hand washing and prohibiting large gatherings of workers.

» MORE: Atlanta mayor: Panel to plan reopening city 

Kemp’s strategy puts more pressure on state and local authorities to make sure businesses are complying with his new mandate.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis showed that state officers wrote less than two dozen tickets for violations over the first two weeks of the order, though they issued hundreds of warnings.

“The private sector has to convince the public it’s safe to go back into these businesses,” said the governor. “If they don’t, we have the ability to act on that.”

The governor’s plan emerges amid simmering frustration over severe measures to stem the pandemic that have gutted parts of the economy, blew a gaping hole in Georgia’s budget and led to a surge in jobless claims.

Several of Kemp's Republican allies have urged him to immediately lift restrictions, and commissioners in Monroe County passed a resolution that formally called on him to restart the economy when the shelter-in-place order expires at the end of the month.

And though Georgia has so far escaped widespread protests of coronavirus crackdowns, that could soon change.

A group touting itself as “Operation Gridlock” urges demonstrators to festoon their cars with signs and banners on Friday and circle the Capitol calling for Georgia to reopen.