As Georgia COVID-19 cases rise, Kemp has no plans for new restrictions

Speaking with the press Friday after touring a COVID-19 testing site at the Lilburn First Baptist Church in Gwinnett County, Gov. Brian Kemp said he did not see enough public buy-in to institute a statewide requirement to wear masks to fight the spread of the disease. (PHOTO by Steve Schaefer for the AJC)

Speaking with the press Friday after touring a COVID-19 testing site at the Lilburn First Baptist Church in Gwinnett County, Gov. Brian Kemp said he did not see enough public buy-in to institute a statewide requirement to wear masks to fight the spread of the disease. (PHOTO by Steve Schaefer for the AJC)

Gov. Brian Kemp doesn't plan to impose new restrictions or require the use of masks to combat the spread of the coronavirus in Georgia, he said Friday as he tried to balance an increase in cases of the disease with his decision to roll back limits.

The Republican said mandating masks is a “bridge too far for me right now” and that the state continues to “hold our own” in the quest to contain the disease, citing increased troves of lifesaving personal protection equipment and testimony from hospital executives encouraged by new treatments.

“I’m certainly not imposing new restrictions right now. I think what we have on the books has done very well for us,” Kemp said at a media briefing outside a testing facility in Gwinnett County, which has seen a recent spike in cases of COVID-19.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

» LATEST FIGURES: Up-to-date stats on the COVID-19 outbreak

The statements coincide with rising outbreaks in Georgia and across the region that threaten to reverse months of efforts, such as social-distancing and economic restrictions, aimed at slowing the spread of the disease. And they come one day after U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said the virus is likely 10 times more widespread than numbers show, according to blood testing.

On Friday, Georgia reported 1,900 new cases, a daily record. Five of the state’s highest daily case counts have come in the past seven days. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are also rising, at their highest point in more than a month.

Though testing is up compared with Georgia’s previous peak in April, the increase in confirmed cases can only be attributed in part to improved testing capacity, experts said. They also indicate community spread of the disease.

Health experts worry the reopening of the state’s economy has sped the outbreaks. Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a Georgia State University public health professor, said he’s concerned political leaders have given people “the false impression that it is safe to resume normal activity” and abandon aggressive use of masks and social distancing.

He added: “This is just the beginning.”

CDC Director Robert Redfield on Thursday called out the increases in COVID-19 cases in the Southeast and Southwest, saying: “This is a significant event. We are obviously concerned.”. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The CDC’s Redfield on Thursday called out the increases in the Southeast and Southwest, saying: “This is a significant event. We are obviously concerned.”

Kemp emphasized that he is still vigilant.

“We’re not letting our guard down,” he said, urging Georgians to wear masks and practice social distancing. “We’ve got to continue to fight the fight hard every day. We’ve got to continue to jump on the hot spots.”

State by state

More than a dozen states, such as North Carolina, currently require face coverings in most public settings, particularly where social distancing is not possible. Nearly as many states, including Virginia, require mask use broadly in businesses or in public indoor areas.

Georgia does not, and Kemp’s earlier executive order went further, limiting what local governments can put in place.

Prior to touring the Cutting Board Co. in Norcross on Friday, Gov. Brian Kemp gets his temperature checked. Widespread temperature checks for fevers, disease testing and mask wearing are some ways to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (PHOTO by Steve Schaefer for the AJC)

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Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and other local officials have expressed frustration that Kemp’s statewide order overrides their ability to enact local restrictions. The governor said Friday that he has no plans to reverse that decision.

In interviews this week with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, several public health experts have urged Kemp to reconsider his reopening strategy, mandate masks or allow local governments to pre-empt state orders and enact tougher restrictions on the movement of people and on businesses.

“Absolutely, the governor needs to rethink what he’s reopened to date,” Dr. Heiman said.

In a media briefing earlier this week, Dr. Carlos del Rio, the executive associate dean of Emory University School of Medicine at Grady Health System, said the public needs to get away from the idea that life is going to go back to normal, since the vast majority of the public remains vulnerable to the disease. He said leaders need to stress the importance of social distancing, washing hands and wearing masks to reduce the chance of spreading the coronavirus.

“Face masks have become a point of political discussion,” del Rio said. “Face masks are simply about protecting ourselves and protecting others.”

‘Public buy-in’

Some of the largest spikes have occurred in rural counties in west and South Georgia over the past few weeks. In recent days metro Atlanta counties have experienced increases.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis showed adults under 30 make up the fastest-growing group of new infections, calling into question whether the state can keep its economy open while also keeping the virus at bay.

The governor said "miraculously" there doesn't appear to be a link between the spread of the disease and protests over race and justice that have brought thousands to the streets, but he said he was particularly concerned about a broader rise in cases in younger people.

“The summer has approached. More people are getting out. That’s certainly created an uptick in cases, not only in Georgia but around the country,” he said. “The younger population are starting to realize that they’ve got to be careful, too.”

» RELATED: Georgia coronavirus cases spike among young adults as virus surges

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Asked specifically about the use of masks, Kemp noted that he dons protective gear in public and private, but he said he was concerned there was no widespread “public buy-in” to instituting a requirement.

“There’s some people that just do not want to wear a mask. I’m sensitive to that from a political environment of having people buy into that and creating other issues out there,” he said. “But it’s definitely a good idea.”

‘It’s going to spread’

Some other states grappling with an increase in cases are pausing their reopening plans. The governors of Nevada, North Carolina and Texas announced plans this week to slow or stall proposals to phase in new parts of the economy.

In Georgia, however, there aren’t as many restrictions still in place after weeks of rollbacks aimed at salvaging an economy that’s seen hundreds of thousands of Georgians lose their jobs.

Georgia was among the first states in April to allow indoor dining and personal care services, such as barbershops and nail salons, to resume operations if they follow guidelines. And over the next weeks, other businesses followed.

In many ways, life has returned to a new semblance of normal. Restaurants, bars and cinemas have reopened with restrictions. Malls have roared back to life.

And many churches have resumed in-person worship services, including the Lilburn congregation housing a coronavirus testing site where Kemp held his press conference Friday.

As some mayors and community leaders explore ways to impose local restrictions, Kemp said he has no plans to return to a piecemeal approach in Georgia that dominated in March before he signed statewide orders.

"We've asked our citizens to be part of the solution and not part of the problem," Kemp said. "It's a virus. It's going to spread. We're not going to stop it from happening. We've got to be smart about who's susceptible to it."