Kemp lashes out at coverage of White House COVID report critical of Georgia

August 19, 2020 Atlanta - Governor Brian Kemp speaks during a press conference to provide update on efforts to combat human trafficking in Georgia at the Georgia State Capitol building on Wednesday, August 19, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
August 19, 2020 Atlanta - Governor Brian Kemp speaks during a press conference to provide update on efforts to combat human trafficking in Georgia at the Georgia State Capitol building on Wednesday, August 19, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp accused The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of playing “pandemic politics” and sparking panic at a testy press conference Wednesday, a day after a confidential report from President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force raised new concerns about his strategy to fight the disease.

At the tail end of a media briefing focused on a new human trafficking crackdown, Kemp grew visibly upset as he fielded questions about the report, which urged Georgia officials to take “continued, expanded and stronger mitigation efforts, including in all open schools.”

“This is what’s so frustrating about pandemic politics and leaked reports. We’re glad to talk about these numbers every day,” Kemp said, adding: “I will tell you that the media only focuses on the bad numbers. They never focus on the good numbers.”

On Wednesday, Georgia reported 2,305 net new cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and 55 net new deaths. To date, the state has reported 243,982 confirmed cases and 4,849 deaths.

The governor and his aides highlighted metrics that showed a recent 26% decrease in the rolling average in new cases over the past seven days and a roughly 20% decline in the hospitalization rate since the most recent peak at the end of July.

The AJC report on the task force’s recommendations noted several indications of modest improvements in recent weeks, including the decline in hospitalizations.

In a statement, AJC Editor Kevin Riley said: “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution summarized a White House report that said Georgia has the highest rate of new cases in the nation. The article included information about a recent decline in new cases and hospitalizations, and in positive test rates. Nearly 5,000 Georgians have died of COVID-19, as our readers know from the statistics we publish daily on our front page and at AJC.com. Attacking factual news reports won’t change the course of this pandemic in Georgia.”

Responding to questions, Kemp lashed out against criticism that his administration hasn’t done enough to contain the pandemic. At times, he spoke over news reporters — and reporters spoke over him — as he defended his strategy to corral the virus.

“To scare people with one number is not fair to the general public. You’re not giving them the benefit of the doubt to make good decision based on all the data,” he said. “That’s all I’m saying. I’m not afraid.”

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‘Lost forever’

Kemp, a Republican, took one of the nation’s most aggressive approaches in reopening the state’s economy, drawing criticism and then praise from Trump. The governor opposes a statewide mask mandate, saying they’re unnecessary, but he recently allowed some local governments to impose them.

He’s long maintained that more drastic measures could hobble the state’s teetering economy, and he mentioned a friend Wednesday whose salon business was on the verge of closing before Kemp’s April order allowing it to resume. A new round of restrictions, he said, would be devastating.

“We know if we shut down again there will be businesses and jobs that will be lost forever. We have to think about that as well in our fight,” Kemp said. “And that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”

The report, obtained by the AJC on Tuesday, showed Georgia remains in the red zone for severity of the outbreak as measured by rate of case growth and test positivity despite some improvements in some areas in recent weeks. It also reported Georgia has the highest rate of new cases of the disease in the country in the seven days ending Friday.

The document echoes earlier task force assessments, which also recommend Georgia close bars and gyms and restrict indoor dining at restaurants in the highest risk counties. Social gatherings, now capped at 50 people in Georgia, should be limited to 10 or fewer people, even within families.

Kemp said he and other state leaders review the recommendations “but it doesn’t mean every governor is going to follow every single one of them.” He also pressured local law enforcement agencies to enforce his statewide order, which sets out guidelines for restaurants and other businesses.

“We can’t be every city’s police agency,” Kemp said. “I’d urge them to enforce the regulations, especially on social distancing and whatever else is on our orders.”

And pressed on Georgia’s rocky reopening of schools, Kemp pinned the blame on parents and students who didn’t stay home despite showing symptoms of the disease. Outbreaks have so far led to temporary school closures in Cherokee and Paulding counties. School quarantines have been reported in Floyd and Jackson counties.

“The spread didn’t happen in the schools, for the most part,” Kemp said. “It happened because people came back to school and they already had the coronavirus. So is that the government’s fault? Is that the school’s fault? No, it is not.”

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