Gov. Brian Kemp on Tuesday defended his call to reopen a range of shuttered businesses in Georgia — from bowling alleys to salons — though his plan has left some business owners wary and confused as they considered how to protect themselves and their customers.
In Georgia, coronavirus deaths exceed 800 and confirmed infections have surpassed 20,000. But the state is also among those leading the charge to reopen and kickstart the economy. His plan is among the most aggressive announced since President Donald Trump laid out benchmarks for states to start lifting restrictions.
Georgia's testing system has lagged behind much of the nation and public health experts warned that moving too quickly could fuel a resurgence in infections.
“It’s concerning. I’m certainly not going to go the gym or get a haircut,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert at Emory University in Atlanta. “I’ll let people make their own decisions.”
Kemp’s order lets gyms, hair and nail salons, bowling alleys and tattoo parlors open with restrictions Friday. Restaurants can resume dine-in service Monday, though bars and nightclubs must remain closed.
“The private sector is going to have to convince the public that it’s safe to come back into these businesses,” Kemp said Monday.
On Tuesday's edition of Fox News' "The Story," Kemp called his plan a "measured step."
"I would urge people to really look at the guidance that we are going to be putting out the rest of the week," he said.
During a White House briefing Tuesday evening, Trump called Kemp a “very capable man” who “knows what he’s doing.” Trump said he was planning to talk to Kemp soon, but he didn't give more details.
In his interview, Kemp said his move represented "the gateways to the phase one part of the president's plan" and was made in conjunction with public health officials, is based on the data collected in his state.
"They support a measured opening, which is what we are doing," Kemp said. "It's going to be very limited in scope. Basic operations."
Kemp also voiced concern about the civil and emotional toll that would be taken, were the shutdown to continue indefinitely.
Georgia has processed more than 900,000 new unemployment claims in the last month. But many business owners aren't convinced it's time to end the lockdown.
“I think most of our customers are not ready to venture out yet,” said Kristin Allin, who, along with her husband, owns Bread & Butterfly restaurant in Atlanta. She said her restaurant will remain closed for now, possibly for another month or more.
In Savannah, Mark Lebos closed his gym March 11. He reached out to clients Tuesday to tell them his business, Strong Gym, won't be reopening yet. Lebos said reopening would be professional negligence.
“We are not going to be a vector of death and suffering,” he said.
Ronique Holloway plans to wait until May 1 to reopen her Atlanta-area hair salon, where she’s the only stylist. She worries that’s still too soon, but said she doesn't have a choice because she needs money to support her daughter.
“You’re staring at somebody right in their face when you shampoo it. Heaven forbid if you talk,” said Holloway, 48, who plans to wear a mask and gloves.
But in rural Terrell County, Karl Gould, 82, said it's time to reopen businesses even though his age makes him vulnerable to serious illness.
“Do you want to continue being shut down with a destroyed economy forever?” said Gould, a retired engineer. “Sooner or later, you’ve got to suck it up and say, ‘We’re going to reopen and if we have some casualties, we do.’”
News reports say Kemp is also encountering resistance from mayors in his state. The New York Times said some mayors, prohibited from issuing their own guidelines, urged people to stay home and pay no heed to the reopenings.
Kemp was one of the last governors on the East Coast to announce a statewide stay-at-home order April 1.
Even then, he controversially overruled local officials and allowed beaches, lakes and state parks to remain open — a decision he has characterized as a success, saying there have been few problems.
When salons and cafes reopen in the coming days, Kemp says they must enforce social distancing rules, provide workers with protective gear when available and screen employees exhibiting potential symptoms.
But experts say widespread testing and the ability to trace people exposed to infected patients are critical to resuming business without causing a new wave of sickness.
Georgia is working on those pieces, but isn't there yet, said Dr. Harry J. Heiman, an associate professor of public health at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He said Kemp's decision to reopen businesses without sufficient testing or contact tracing is “premature and it’s irresponsible."
Georgia had administered more than 88,000 tests as of Tuesday, but its per-capita testing rate is in the bottom 10 of states.
Kemp spoke of the tough balancing act he faces, charged with protecting the public but also reopening in measured steps.
Pressed by host Martha MacCallum on the risks of reopening gyms and fitness centers in particular, he spoke of making those business owners partners in the virus fight, with shared responsibility for helping enforce strict guidelines.
According to Fox News, he also said: "We'll be putting those guidelines out. If people don't want to go, they don't have to go. If people don't want to open the gym, they don't have to. But when you close somebody's business down and take [the] livelihood of that individual and those employees and they are literally at the base of losing everything, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt," he said.
"I think they're going to do the right thing."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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