Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday extended the state’s public health emergency, certain business restrictions and his shelter-in-place order for the medically fragile amid a record spike in new cases of the coronavirus.
The governor also announced Monday that he’s set to go on a statewide fly-around tour ahead of the July Fourth weekend to encourage Georgians to wear masks, but he said he doesn’t plan to require residents to do so.
The extended orders and Kemp’s media blitz on masks comes after Georgia set a record last week with more than 11,000 cases of the coronavirus. The state Department of Public Health on Monday reported 2,207 new cases of the coronavirus, which almost matched Sunday’s single-day record of 2,225.
Georgia had set daily records for three straight days prior to Monday.
The public health emergency, which is now extended to Aug. 11, grants Kemp sweeping authority to impose new restrictions and take other actions to stem the spread of the virus. The shelter order for the medically fragile and residents of long-term care facilities, which had been set to expire Wednesday, was extended for two weeks to July 15.
In another sign of concern over the increased cases, Kemp extended coronavirus restrictions two weeks for businesses and restaurants that were set to expire Wednesday. It’s a break from a string of orders that steadily relaxed regulations.
The order also required the state Board of Education to draft rules to guide local officials planning to reopen public schools.
Kemp is set to travel to Albany, Augusta, Columbus, Dalton, Savannah and Valdosta ahead of the holiday weekend to “encourage citizens to heed public health advice and wear a mask” to stem the spread of the disease, his office said.
“Wear a mask, practice social distancing, wash your hands and continue to follow the guidance provided by public health officials,” said Kemp, who has made a point to wear a mask in public and on social media.
Public health experts welcomed Kemp’s efforts to promote masks to mitigate the virus’ spread. But critics of Kemp’s coronavirus response said the governor’s moves weren’t aggressive enough.
“He’s continuing to literally sit on his hands and fail to meaningfully act in spite of the fact the pandemic is marching ahead in our state,” said Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health. “I appreciate that the governor is going to go on a campaign to encourage mask wearing, that’s important. But that alone in the absence of meaningful policy action is not going to do much to turn around this pandemic in this state.”
The surge in COVID-19 cases in Georgia mirrors an uptick in cases of the disease in many places across the U.S., particularly in the South and West, as states roll back restrictions.
Georgia has been among the more aggressive states to reopen its economy since the end of April, when restaurants were allowed to resume dine-in services and personal care business, such as nail salons and barbershops, were permitted to reopen if they followed safety guidelines.
Since then, Kemp has ended the shelter-in-place order for all but “medically fragile” Georgians, allowed larger gatherings and permitted bars, nightclubs and live entertainment venues to welcome guests again if they follow a series of regulations.
Kemp said he doesn’t intend to impose any new restrictions to combat the disease, and his office Monday pointed to a steady increase in testing and a fatality rate for the disease of 3.6%, the lowest it’s been since mid-April, as a sign his approach was effective.
Though testing is up since the virus’ initial peak in April, the rate of positive tests recently has also climbed — a sign of increased spread.
The state has also reported a dramatic rise in current hospitalizations for COVID-19 in recent weeks. On Monday, there were 1,359 current hospitalizations, up from 783 on June 7. Deaths also are a lagging indicator of the virus.
Adults under 30 have been the leader in new cases of the virus, but health experts warn the virus can easily spread to older and more vulnerable populations.
Mask wearing has become politicized, particularly for many on the right.
But Kemp is among a growing list of Republican officials imploring residents to don face coverings, even as President Donald Trump refuses to wear a mask in public and ridiculed presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for using one.
The group includes Vice President Mike Pence, who encouraged Americans to wear masks during a weekend visit to Texas, and U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, who tweeted a picture of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, wearing one with the hashtag “#realmenwearmasks.”
Consensus has grown among the medical experts that masks are critical to fighting the virus.
“There is good evidence to suggest wearing a face covering can decrease potential exposure and spread, especially between asymptomatic carriers and vulnerable populations and in situations where social distancing cannot be maintained,” said Dr. Phillip Coule, vice president and chief medical officer for the Augusta University Health System.
Kemp also announced state officials will distribute more than 3 million face coverings to local government officials and schools.
Asked specifically about requiring mask usage, Kemp has said that mandating them is a “bridge too far,” and he expressed concern there was not enough public support to institute a statewide order.
“There’s some people that just do not want to wear a mask. I’m sensitive to that from a political environment of having people buy into that and creating other issues out there,” he said recently. “But it’s definitely a good idea.”
There was also no requirement at the state Capitol that lawmakers, lobbyists and Georgia State Patrol officers wear masks, although the Georgia House mandated that legislators wear the face coverings during the two-week rebooted legislative session that ended Friday.