Georgia joins Tennessee and South Carolina as one of the first states to begin rolling back restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic. On Monday, Gov. Brian Kemp said that select businesses will begin reopening as early as this Friday and quarantine measures will continue to ease throughout the state in the coming days and weeks.
According to the new announcement, as of April 24, fitness centers, hair and nail salons, massage therapy businesses, body art studios, and bowling alleys will be allowed to reopen. Theaters and restaurants will be able to open on April 27, but this excludes bars and nightclubs which will remain closed for now, reports CNN. "If we have an instance where a community starts becoming a hotspot, then, you know, I will take further action," Kemp told reporters. "But right now I feel like we're in a good spot to move forward."
Kemp cited reports of promising data including a decline in emergency room visits for flu-like illnesses and projects that show that Georgia may be through the worst of the virus. Georgia reportedly hit its projected peak on April 7, according to a model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation which is frequently cited by the White House.
However, the same model advises that Georgia shouldn’t start relaxing social distancing until after June 15. The state has yet to reach the 14 days of sustained declining infection rates which is one of the first signs the White House mentions in its guidelines to reopen states. There is no widespread testing available in Georgia which is another key factor for all states to consider when rolling back restrictions.
So, how exactly will this new plan work in action? According to Kemp, life will not go back to normal completely, and social distancing measures will remain in place as much as possible. This means that businesses like hair salons are expected to either keep customers at a six foot distance, and some gyms are expected to remove equipment that is too close together. Kemp says that these measures must be in compliance for all businesses, though it is unclear how they will be monitored on a local level.
This announcement goes against the advice of medical professionals who have repeatedly warned government officials that reopening states too soon could cause a surge in cases and preventable deaths. “Unless we get the virus under control, the real recovery economically is not gonna happen. So what you do if you jump the gun and go into a situation where you have a big spike, you’re gonna set yourself back,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “It’s gonna backfire. That’s the problem.” Fauci is among other experts who said on Tuesday that states opening threaten a second wave of coronavirus cases in the Fall, that they foresee being even more deadly than the current pandemic.
The decision to do this also directly contradicts Kemp's own previous position on easing state measures. On April 13, Kemp said in a press conference that it was too early to start reopening businesses. Revealing that he believed Georgia to be “a little behind the curve,” compared to other states that have experienced a burst of cases. “We need to focus on the mission at hand,” Kemp added. Exactly one week later, he appears to have changed his tune; however, a look back at his course of action to curb the spread of the virus in Georgia shows a path fraught with political pressure.
Though Kemp insists that he “doesn’t give a damn about politics right now,” he is under pressure to reopen the state, despite what local-level officials may feel is necessary. On Friday, he had to contend with a “Reopen Georgia” rally demanding for restrictions to be rolled back, and he’s reportedly been fielding calls from conservative allies. And let’s not forget that President Donald Trump, whose endorsement helped Kemp beat out his Republican rival in 2018, has been encouraging and defending the actions of demonstrators defying social distancing orders and assembling outside capitol buildings in Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio.
Currently, Georgia has 18,911 confirmed coronavirus cases and 792 reported deaths, according to the New York Times. Mayors of various cities throughout Georgia have expressed concern over the state’s reopening and the potential for a second and even third wave of illness. Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, went as far as to say that Kemp’s decision was not based on “anything logical.” Van Johnson, the mayor of Savannah told CNN that ending the lockdown was “reckless, premature, and dangerous.”