AJC IN-DEPTH: Kemp urges Georgians to heed virus warnings but balks at drastic steps

As the death toll from coronavirus mounted, Gov. Brian Kemp pleaded with Georgians during a Thursday statewide televised event to stay home and practice social distancing.

As the death toll from coronavirus mounted, Gov. Brian Kemp pleaded with Georgians during a Thursday statewide televised event to stay home and practice social distancing even as he stressed more drastic measures weren’t yet needed to stem the disease’s spread.

Using a prime-time town hall broadcast across the state, the governor urged residents, particularly the “elderly and medically fragile,” to heed state directives and isolate to limit the spread of the virus so he wouldn’t have to impose stiffer restrictions that could further devastate the state’s economy.

“I’m having to govern the whole state,” he said, saying that even as more hot spots arise, broad sections of the state have hardly been touched by the virus. “We still have over 50 counties that don’t have a confirmed case yet. We’re trying to balance that.”

He added: “If we can get our citizens to follow these directions, it will absolutely turn this curve and we will get on the other side of this virus.”

MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia

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

The town hall also featured Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who said she respected the governor’s stance but warned that not embracing steeper restrictions could further strain Georgia’s health care system.

“If it were my call, I would have a stay-at-home order for the entire country,” Bottoms said. “But obviously, that is not my call.”

Kemp under fire

The televised event came on the heels of another grim benchmark, as Georgia's confirmed coronavirus cases soared past 1,600 on Thursday, roughly doubling the numbers reported by state health officials just three days ago. Over the past two weeks, the disease has claimed the lives of at least 56 Georgians.

In another sign of of the widespread reach of the virus, Kemp on Thursday ordered k-12 public schools shut down through April 24 though he stopped short of canceling schools through the end of the year. He said during the town hall that his administration's health experts said keeping students home another month affords the state more flexibility.

“It gives us enough time to really see where this virus is going to go,” he said. “The data we’re seeing today is two weeks old, and the data we’ll be seeing two weeks from now is from today.”

>>How is your school handling this extended closure? Are classes online or on paper? Are teachers using video conferences? Let us know at CoronavirusEducation@ajc.com

The governor also endorsed the idea of paid sick leave for Georgians knocked out of the workforce by the disease, saying that’s “exactly” what a $2 trillion federal coronavirus package pending in the U.S. House was designed to do.

“That’s something we have pushed for,” he said. “I have myself, and the nation’s governors have, because we know that our people are hurting now and we’ve got to continue to fight for them. I’m very hopeful that help will be there shortly.”

Kemp has come under intense criticism from epidemiologists and other critics who say the restrictions he's imposed, which include a ban on many public gatherings and a shutdown of bars and nightclubs, don't go far enough to contain the highly contagious illness.

They were stoked by state Democrats who peppered him with questions using the hashtag #AskGovKemp on Twitter, which was trending throughout the state on Thursday and prompted more than 3,300 replies.

Some wanted to press him about his opposition to expanding the Medicaid program, a question he sidestepped Thursday, while others demanded more details about an ongoing shortage of test kits that's complicating the state's response.

And many wanted to know why he has refused to impose more stringent restrictions that a growing number of local leaders have embraced, a topic that emerged repeatedly during the hourlong town hall.

‘Tremendous concern’

This week, a new wave of cities, including Atlanta and Savannah, adopted shelter-at-home requirements that have contributed to a patchwork of measures. Some local governments are under voluntary curfews, others have far more scaled-back restrictions in place.

The governor has said he's not worried about the uneven response, saying his orders protect vulnerable Georgians while letting local governments take stricter steps if necessary. And he and his aides have voiced concern that stricter rules could erase years of economic growth in a matter of weeks.

“What’s good for Atlanta … may not be the correct thing for these other areas where they have limited spread,” said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner.

Bottoms had a contrasting view. During her segment, she expressed worries that Grady Memorial Hospital was already nearing full capacity and that the state’s hospitals could be overwhelmed by early May.

“It’s of tremendous concern to me,” she said, adding that she prays the new medical facilities that state authorities are racing to build won’t be necessary.

The mayor, a member of Kemp's coronavirus task force, also said an angel donor has provided a downtown Atlanta hotel for homeless and displaced people who need to be quarantined or isolated due to the coronavirus.

Toomey said other areas of the state need aggressive intervention, too. She singled out Albany, the southwest Georgia city where an outbreak linked to two funerals has sickened at least 164 people, straining and has strained the local hospital system.

A first shipment of ventilators is headed to Albany imminently, she said, and officials are trying to identify non-traditional sources for life-saving equipement, including technical colleges and universities, to “amass the needed amounts before it comes to that crisis point.”

The town hall itself reflected the extraordinary crisis facing Georgia. Metro Atlanta broadcast stations, normally intense competitors, united to televise the event from separate studios miles apart from each other.

Kemp held court from the headquarters of Channel 2 Action News, while other officials were scattered among different studios. The event was also broadcast on more than 140 radio stations across the state.