New surge in coronavirus cases in Georgia upends 2022 campaigns

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The recent surge in coronavirus cases in Georgia has triggered a new round of finger-pointing from politicians once eager to put the pandemic behind them, shaping a fresh debate over the ongoing outbreak just as competitive races for statewide contests are beginning to gel.

On the campaign trail, Republicans who tried to avoid talk about the pandemic in 2020 are now centering stump speeches and fundraising appeals on the resurgence of the disease, blaming the increase on “mixed messages” from President Joe Biden’s administration as they paint vaccine requirements and mask mandates as government interference.

Democrats who not long ago hoped to declare victory over the pandemic during Biden’s first year in office are wrestling with a new wave of infections, this time on his watch, as they blast GOP leaders for not taking more aggressive statewide action to contain the spread.

The uptick has also complicated the reelection message for Gov. Brian Kemp, whose campaign speeches seem a flashback to last year, laced with vows to oppose mask mandates and keep the economy open as he faces pressure from both the right and the left over his approach.

The latest blame game is happening amid a sharp increase in coronavirus cases that has filled hospitals, forced businesses to reassess plans to reopen offices and led local officials and school administrators across the state to impose mask requirements.

As the highly infectious delta variant spreads, the seven-day average of probable and confirmed coronavirus cases is nearly a dozen times higher than it was in early July. While Georgia’s vaccination rate has inched up, roughly 53% of residents still haven’t received at least one dose.

Democrats are quick to blame Kemp for policies that prolong the pandemic, echoing Biden’s criticism of GOP governors across the nation for opposing mandates. Much of the recent criticism, though, has focused on Kemp’s unwillingness to launch fresh efforts to curb the spread of the disease.

“What politicians should be doing instead is taking the new guidance and doing a full-court press in science communication,” said state Rep. Rebecca Mitchell, a Gwinnett County Democrat who holds a doctorate in epidemiology.

“We need buy-in from the public, we need trust and we need communication,” Mitchell said. “Where are our public health leaders? Why are they not public facing? Why are we not daily talking about what changed, why and how it keeps Georgians safer?”

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

State Sen. Burt Jones represents the other side of the equation. The Jackson Republican, who recently entered the race for lieutenant governor, has called for a special legislative session to ban schools from requiring masks for students, teachers and staffers.

“If it were up to the Doomsday Democrats, we would be locked down forever,” he said. “We need to start getting back to some normalcy. That means full reopening of our economy, getting our kids learning again.”

‘NO WAY’

Public polls throughout 2020 found Georgians favored how Democrats handled the pandemic, a notion that Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock leaned into during the January runoffs for control of the U.S. Senate.

Both promised to vote for a sweeping coronavirus relief package opposed by the GOP incumbents, while Biden said Georgia Democrats were pivotal to his plan to contain the pandemic and juice the economy.

A recent poll by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling showed Georgians are split on Biden’s performance, but his ratings among those who are fully vaccinated offered a sharper contrast. About two-thirds of those vaccinated gave him a positive review, while just 3% of those who refused the shots approve of his work in the White House.

Republicans feel they’ve landed on a way to energize conservatives fed up with the idea of new restrictions. That helps explain the explosion at recent guidelines from the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that urge Americans to return to wearing masks indoors in places where the virus is surging.

“My response to the CDC requiring our kids to wear masks: NO WAY! We’re going to fight to take our country back,” tweeted Mike Collins, a congressional candidate running for a conservative east Georgia district, along with a video of him blow-torching a paper mask.

While some Republicans have condemned efforts to require masks, Kemp has infuriated Democrats and public health experts by rejecting aggressive new steps to stem the spread of the disease and encourage vaccinations.

Instead, he’s railed against orders by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and other local officials to reinstate mask requirements, called on federal regulators to fast-track federal approval of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and vented at the Biden administration.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

“I don’t think mask mandates work,” Kemp said. “We have the president of the United States telling all Americans, begging them, get your vaccine and take your masks off. Now, that guidance is different. What does that tell people? Mixed messages from the government.”

Democrats say it’s not a mixed message: The federal guidance changed after cases of COVID-19 exploded, spread largely by the unvaccinated.

Some of Kemp’s fellow Republicans are upset he’s not going further. State Sen. Brandon Beach, an Alpharetta Republican who was one of the most vocal supporters of President Donald Trump’s conspiracy claims that the 2020 election was stolen, announced plans to introduce legislation that would block businesses from requiring vaccines for customers or employees.

After a weekend rally in northwest Georgia, a woman critical of the vaccine confronted Kemp, urging him to take executive action to block the private sector from requiring the jabs. The governor was unequivocal: “I’m not going to tell private companies what to do.”

State Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Gwinnett Democrat and microbiologist, said she finds the GOP finger-pointing over the pandemic “audacious” as she urges Georgians to get vaccinated, wear masks and take other precautions.

“Cases are surging because the Republican leadership in our state refuses to actually lead,” she said. “We are where we are because Republicans, who control every facet of government in this state, are more afraid of losing votes than losing lives to a deadly virus.