Gov. Brian Kemp sets Georgia on aggressive course to reopen, putting his state at center of deepening national debate

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s move Monday to lift restrictions on a wide range of businesses, one of the most aggressive moves yet to reignite commercial activity in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, put his state at the center of a deepening national battle over whether Americans are ready to risk exacerbating the public health crisis to revive the shattered economy.

The announcement from Kemp (R), who was among the last of the nation’s governors to impose a statewide stay-at-home directive, caused blowback from public health experts, who said the state did not yet meet the criteria issued by the White House, and set up a potential confrontation with the mayor of Atlanta and leaders from other cities advising residents to stay at home.

Kemp, a first-term governor, said he would allow gyms, barber shops, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys, among other businesses, to reopen on Friday, though they would be required to follow social distancing guidelines and screen their employees for signs of fever and respiratory illness. He said theaters and dine-in restaurants would be permitted to resume activity on April 27. Meanwhile, a statewide shelter-in-place order expires at the end of the month.

The only other state pursuing as swift a strategy is South Carolina, where a range of retail stores were allowed to reopen Monday. The Republican governor, Henry McMaster, also lifted the state’s controls on beaches but left decisions about whether to reopen them to local officials.

The decisions in those two Southern states came as scattered protests across the country have targeted governors’ stay-at-home orders, encouraged in some places by President Trump, who has chafed at the social distancing guidelines issued by his own administration.

Epidemiologists say restrictions on economic activity and public assembly, combined with ramped-up testing and aggressive contact tracing to identify other potentially infected people, are necessary to contain the outbreak of the new coronavirus, which has killed more than 42,000 Americans. Many governors, including some Republicans, have heeded that advice, holding out against protesters who have descended on state capitol buildings to decry the emergency orders.

Others are charting a different course.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida gave a reopening task force five days to develop recommendations. Republican Gov. Bill Lee in Tennessee said he would let his stay-at-home order expire at the end of the month. “Social distancing must continue, but our economic shutdown cannot,” he said.

Georgia is moving even faster, although it ranks 42nd in testing per capita, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

The state promises to be especially fraught terrain in the politically explosive debate over how to balance public health imperatives against the looming threat of economic depression. It is home to one of the nation’s largest cities, an international travel hub, but also experienced one of the nation’s earliest rural outbreaks in a heavily black community around Albany. And it is an election battleground, won by Trump in 2016 but eyed by Democrats as a potential pickup this year.

The state has reported nearly 20,000 cases and 775 deaths. South Carolina, by comparison, had nearly 4,500 cases and 124 deaths by Monday.

“By taking this measured action, we will get Georgians back to work safely without undermining the progress that we have all made in the battle against covid-19,” Kemp said at a news conference.

He acknowledged that “we’re probably going to have to see our cases continue to go up,” but he said the state was better equipped to address new outbreaks. “If we have an instance where a community starts becoming a hot spot, then, you know, I will take further action.”

His public health commissioner, Kathleen Toomey, said the plans accord with nonbinding guidelines issued by the Trump administration, which call for a “downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period” before initiating a phased reopening.

But Jeffrey Koplan, a former director of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said they do not.

“I haven’t seen any numbers that support that in Georgia yet,” he said. “There’s talk of it tapering off into a plateau and talk of it looking better than the models, but it feels very premature.”

Koplan, now vice president for global health at Emory University, added: “I think it’s dangerous. This is no time for this kind of experimentation.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) condemned the decision.

“More than 19,000 Georgians have tested positive for covid-19 and the numbers continue to increase,” she said in a statement. “It is the governor’s prerogative to make this decision for the state, but I will continue to urge Atlanta to stay at home, stay safe and make decisions based on the best interests of their families.”

Kemp, in his remarks Monday, stressed that his directive overrides local orders, saying, “Local action cannot be taken that is more or less restrictive.”

A spokesman for Bottoms declined to comment on what authority the mayor had to curtail activity licensed by the governor.

Already local officials have demonstrated a willingness to go toe-to-toe with the governor. Shirley Sessions, the mayor of Tybee Island, issued a forceful rebuke of Kemp when he reopened the beaches after she had shut down the waterfront area in her small coastal city.

“As the Pentagon ordered 100,000 body bags to store the corpses of Americans killed by the coronavirus, Governor Brian Kemp dictated that Georgia beaches must reopen,” she said at the time.

Koplan said dueling directives would result in chaos, warning that the “fragmentation of policy and recommended courses of action is extremely confusing to the public.”

While acknowledging the governor’s authority, one regional health director said limited testing may be obscuring the true extent of the outbreak.

“This is a decision that Governor Kemp will make for our state, but he will need information on the number of cases in the state to know where we are in our battle with this epidemic,” said Pamela Logan, who is responsible for a set of counties in northeast Georgia. “The governor has called upon public health to provide additional covid-19 testing, and we are answering that call.”

She added: “There is much work to be done, and we are staying busy trying to save lives.”

Earlier this month, when Kemp decided to reverse course and issue a statewide stay-at-home order, he said he had only just learned that the virus could be spread in the absence of symptoms, even though experts had been warning for weeks about asymptomatic transmission. One of his top aides had earlier taken to Facebook to accuse local officials of “overreach” for directing residents to stay at home.

That rhetoric is now being employed at demonstrations, which have escalated even as a vast majority of Americans support stay-at-home measures, according to recent polling.

In a sign of its national political reverberations, Kemp’s decision drew condemnation from Stacey Abrams, the Democrat who opposed him in the 2018 governor’s race and who has spoken openly of her interest in being Joe Biden’s running mate. On Twitter, she called the governor’s plans “dangerously incompetent.”

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