Why Georgia’s governor hasn’t yet insisted on more coronavirus restrictions

Gov. Brian Kemp has said it “would be counterproductive” to shut down bars and restaurants at this point to stem the spread of the coronavirus. “I don’t know that our citizens are going to buy into that,” he said. “We have to take an approach that is aggressive but also people feel like is warranted.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Armed with broad new authorities to suspend state laws and limit gatherings, Gov. Brian Kemp has so far used his powerful pulpit to do a lot of urging.

He's recommended that nursing homes restrict visitors. He's nudged clergy members to hold online services and organizers to reconsider events. And he encouraged Georgians to steer clear of packing restaurants and bars even as he balked at insisting they be closed.

“We can’t just shut things down. I believe that would be counterproductive, and I don’t know that our citizens would buy into that,” Kemp said during an interview on Q99.7, a local radio station. “We have to take an approach that is aggressive but also people feel like is warranted.”

Some health experts warn keeping restaurants and bars open risks extending the threat of an illness that has sickened at least 197 in Georgia and is linked to three deaths. It’s also at odds with a growing number of governors in other states, including several of Georgia’s neighbors, who have announced restrictions to stem the spread of the disease.

Kemp, empowered by an unprecedented public health emergency declaration to take similar steps, has drawn sharp criticism for refusing to do so.

“He’s not showing a bit of leadership, and he’s passing the buck down the line,” said George Basco, the executive manager of Rise-N-Dine, an Emory Village eatery that closed Sunday. “I’m appalled at the guy because there are literally hundreds of bars and restaurants open, and staffers are telling me they’re scared, they don’t feel safe being there.”

They’re echoed by some Georgia Democrats who point to guidance from the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, and the litany of other states that have announced new restrictions.

In the past few days, Florida shut down bars and nightclubs for 30 days, North Carolina ordered all restaurants to close for dine-in customers, and the leaders of Connecticut, New Jersey and New York shuttered movie theaters, gyms and casinos in a regional effort to stem the outbreak.

"Slowing the spread of the virus at this point should be the state's paramount concern. The restrictions we impose today will save lives in the days ahead," said state House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, the top Democrat in the chamber. "Time is of the essence. We cannot be afraid to act and act swiftly."

‘Hurt a lot’

In other parts of the state where coronavirus cases have yet to surface, local business owners and city officials were more reluctant to urge Kemp to reverse course.

Kathryn Wood is the manager of Miss Jane's Restaurant, one of the only dine-in eateries in Warrenton, an east Georgia city where there is not yet a confirmed case of the virus. A shutdown, even temporarily, will force Wood and five other restaurant employees out of work, she said.

“One of our employees has five children and no other income. It’s going to really hurt small businesses. I hope the governor holds off,” said Wood, who is so tied to the restaurant that neighbors and customers call her “Miss Jane.”

“I’d hate to see them close us down. It would sure hurt a lot of people in this small town,” she said. “But I feel like it’s going to happen before long. And I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Mayor Phil Best of Dublin, a city of roughly 16,000 with no known cases of the virus, ticked off the precautions his community was taking: City Hall is closed to the public, many restaurants are limiting orders to curbside pickups, most churches have live-streamed services.

“For the time being, it’s fine like it is. I have full confidence in the way the governor is handling it,” said Best, a real estate agent who is also president of the Georgia Municipal Association.

“I’m a big believer in local rule,” he added. “I don’t mean this egotistically, but we know what’s best for us — better than someone in Atlanta.

“At some point, the governor may have to make a directive to shut businesses down. And if so, we all might have to go home. But we just don’t know what’s going to happen the next few weeks.”

‘Really tough call’

Kemp, who earlier faced criticism for not declaring a state of emergency, appears to agree with that approach.

The broadest mandate he's issued was an order this week that all school systems shutter through the end of the month, though most had already done so voluntarily. And in the interview, he reflected on the struggle to strike a balance between containing the disease and keeping businesses afloat.

“Because if you overreach, people are going to rebel on you, basically, and not heed the warnings you’re giving to them,” he said. “And if you don’t do too much, it creates big problems.”

In more densely populated parts of the state, city officials have drawn praise for imposing restrictions that go far beyond the state’s policy.

“We need clear and direct orders and mandates from our political leaders,” said Doug Shipman, the chief executive of the Woodruff Arts Center. “The less we do in groups, the better. Period.”

Some local leaders have taken it upon themselves to lay down the law.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms limited public gatherings to 50 people this week after the CDC posted new guidelines, and some suburbs are considering following suit. Kemp's hometown of Athens-Clarke County has severely restricted gatherings, too, and discussed taking more significant steps.

“We are facing an unprecedented pandemic public health crisis right now,” said Athens-Clarke Commissioner Russell Edwards, who pushed for a broad curfew to limit gatherings. “We’ve got to stop the virus.”

The governor, meanwhile, has focused on his office’s soft power rather than the hard authority he was granted by lawmakers in an overwhelming bipartisan vote.

He’s blitzed social media with calls for Georgians to stay home if possible and to patronize restaurants that have shifted to carry-out only, including the Varsity, the famous Atlanta restaurant where his staff ordered takeout on Monday.

“It’s a really, really tough call. It will be interesting to see if the federal government steps in,” Kemp said, adding: “Right now, there’s no reason for a statewide mandate. That’s the way we’re going to continue to do things, based on data and advice from health care experts.”

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