Long opposed to drastic coronavirus measures, Kemp now embraces some

There’s a phrase Gov. Brian Kemp likes to invoke when pressed by residents, law-and-order types and reporters on why he wasn’t insisting on more drastic action to contain the coronavirus: He still had “arrows left in the quiver” to combat the pandemic.

There’s a phrase Gov. Brian Kemp likes to invoke when pressed by residents, law-and-order types and reporters on why he wasn’t insisting on more drastic action to contain the coronavirus: He still had “arrows left in the quiver” to combat the pandemic.

He drew the largest of those last week when he ordered a statewide shelter in place that pressed most of Georgia’s 10.6 million residents to stay at home, taking a step he had resisted as too draconian for rural areas not yet shellacked by the disease’s spread.

The Republican was alternately praised, criticized and ridiculed for the move — the latter for suggesting he had just learned the widespread knowledge that people infected with COVID-19 could transmit the disease even if they were not showing symptoms.

And some who initially lauded him for the step scaled back their compliments later, worried that the measures weren’t strong enough to blunt the rapid spread of a highly contagious illness that’s killed hundreds of Georgians and sickened thousands more.

MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia

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

Still, it was a reversal from a governor who had just days earlier defended his decision not to take more drastic action at a televised town hall because "we still have over 50 counties that don't have a confirmed case yet."

And even after he extended the stay-at-home order through the end of the month, the governor and his aides continue to wrestle with serious questions: Whether to impose more limits on everyday life for Georgia’s 10.6 million residents and, eventually, how to revive a faltering economy.

“It’s a tough call on all these things,” Kemp said this week. “Everybody’s doing like I’m doing — they’re trying to do their best to keep their communities safe. But I’m in a little bit different of a situation than they are.”

‘A water balloon’

There is no playbook for this crisis, as the governor often points out, but there are widely adopted strategies that public health experts say will help contain the coronavirus and buy physicians and hospitals more time to prepare for a surge of patients.

Among those is a clear and consistent appeal to Georgians to maintain social distancing. His administration has sent mixed messages over the past few weeks, in part thanks to social media posts from his top aide.

As Kemp’s chief of staff, Tim Fleming helps shape his policies, budget priorities and political strategy. Until recently, he has kept a low profile approach to the job, rarely drawing headlines of his own.

That changed as the pandemic spread. As his boss welcomed cities and counties to enact tougher restrictions, Fleming vented about the "overreach" of unnamed local authorities who he suggested abused their emergency powers.

Soon, some of the state’s most conservative mayors and county commissioners began lamenting the lack of state guidance. Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, a former Georgia GOP chairman, flirted with the idea of sending a letter — to be co-signed by dozens of his colleagues — urging Kemp to step up.

Days later, Fleming took to Facebook to call on Georgians to head to beaches, lakes and state parks — enraging local officials who were already miffed that Kemp's statewide order lifted local restrictions, reopening the seashore and nullifying other tough measures.

A dozen North Georgia chairmen pleaded with him to close state parks. The mayor of coastal Tybee Island said she was baffled by the decision to reopen beaches. And Mike Browning, a Republican commissioner in Glynn County, was so upset that he published his cellphone number and begged Kemp to call him.

As Kemp’s supporters bristled at the criticism, bemoaning a no-win situation, the governor stuck to his decision. He likened the situation of stir-crazy Georgians to a fragile “water balloon.”

“People wanted me to do a shelter-in-place order. We got to the position where we felt like we needed to do that. But when you start closing gyms and fitness centers, you start pushing people somewhere else,” he said. “If something gets out of control, I’ll take action.”

Browning, who received a call from Kemp’s aides shortly after blasting out his phone number, praised the governor for his “very positive” decision this week to limit short-term rentals.

But he remains concerned by the message urging Georgians to return to the beaches — and the uptick in calls from would-be visitors who see his community as a haven from coronavirus hot spots.

“If you want people to take the message seriously and stop the spread of this virus, and the best way to do it is social distancing, you want people to know you’re serious about it,” Browning said. “You should send the strongest possible message you can to stay away from other people.”

‘Society can stop the spread’

So how did the governor decide to order Georgians to stay home after weeks of refusing to embrace new restrictions?

While he was mocked for his press conference statement about his “game-changing” discovery about the spread of the disease from people who don’t show symptoms, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had just announced a higher transmission rate of people who could be unknowingly carrying and spreading the disease.

And the mounting public pressure was growing harder to ignore. Prominent Democrats along with one of the state's most powerful Republicans — Georgia House Speaker David Ralston — called on him to take more decisive action. And shortly before Kemp's decision, other Republican-led states imposed new shelter-in-place orders.

People close to the governor express frustration with dramatic statements from his critics, who have said failure to take more sweeping actions will cost thousands of lives. They also point out the unprecedented nature of the crisis that’s upended all facets of American life.

"Are there things they wish they could do differently? I'm sure," said state Rep. Terry Rogers, one of Kemp's top allies in the Georgia House. "But he's always had the best interest of the people of this state at heart. And with the situation constantly changing, he's making the best decisions he can based on the most current information provided to him."

There’s an ideological component, too. The first lifelong Republican elected Georgia governor since Reconstruction, Kemp won with overwhelming support from rural conservatives who cherish limited government. The governor often downplays the role of government in combating the disease.

“The community is going to stop this virus. It’s not going to be the government or a medical provider right now,” he said at the onset of the outbreak. “Until we find the vaccine or a cure for this, and that is months if not years away, society can stop the spread of this and contain it.”

More wrenching decisions await, including whether to shut down houses of worship that ignore social-distancing mandates, such as a Statesboro church whose leaders have promised to continue meeting in close quarters.

“I know it’s something I don’t want to do,” Kemp said, “and I hope it’s something I don’t need to do.”

He’s beginning to strike a guardedly optimistic tone as health experts see signs that the extreme measures could limit the infection rate. Among them is Dr. Carlos del Rio, an Emory University infectious disease specialist who was one of Kemp’s earliest and most outspoken critics.

A few weeks ago, he warned that a "point of no return" was rapidly approaching if Kemp didn't impose more drastic limits. Shortly after the governor extended the stay-at-home orders through April's end, del Rio offered more charitable feedback.

“He is doing mostly the right things,” del Rio said. “My only goal is to save lives. Do I wish he had done the shelter-in-place earlier? Yes. But he did it and now has extended it.”

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