The state of Georgia has reported over 1,000 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Friday, the same day Gov. Brian Kemp lifted the state’s shelter-in-place order for most of its 10.6 million residents.
The Georgia Department of Public Health reported that there a total of 27,023 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state on Thursday, compared to 26,000 confirmed cases the day before, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Health officials also reported that there were 33 new deaths on Thursday, bringing the state’s total death toll to 1,140.
According to guidelines released by the White House coronavirus task force, states are advised to begin re-opening after 14 days of declining positive cases and declining rates of people reporting novel coronavirus symptoms.
But Kemp is forging ahead with re-opening Georgia and encouraging business to resume normal operations despite the number of reported cases in the state rising, drawing bipartisan criticism from fellow elected officials.
The state’s stay-at-home expired for most residents on April 30. Kemp is still extending the state’s public health emergency order and requiring the elderly and “medically fragile” to shelter in place through June 12.
He allowed a slew of business establishments including hair and nail salons, bowling alleys, gyms, and massage-therapy centers to reopen on April 24, followed by restaurants and movie theaters this past Monday, but is still encouraging residents to stay at home if possible.
Kemp has said that businesses must follow “minimum basic operations” of safety, including “screening workers for fever and respiratory illness, enhancing workplace sanitation, wearing gloves and masks if appropriate, separating workspaces by at least 6 feet, and teleworking where at all possible, and implementing staggered shifts.”
But given the sheer number of business establishments under the order, it’s unclear how the state plans to enforce those guidelines across the board, especially in places like hair and nail salons that necessarily involve people being within 6 feet and touching each other.
The governor and his top public health officials are also encouraging residents to wear masks in retail stores or other places where they’ll be in close proximity to others.
Kemp argued in a Thursday interview with the Journal-Constitution that loosening restrictions for the non-elderly population makes sense because almost half of the coronavirus deaths in the state are linked to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
But public health experts, other Georgia elected officials, and even President Donald Trump have warned that Georgia may be moving too fast to re-open, and could even risk spreading the virus further and undoing the progress the previous restrictions achieved.
The outbreak of the virus in Georgia is also disproportionately affecting the state’s African-American residents. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published on Wednesday found that a full 83% of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Georgia during the month of March were black, despite making up only 32% of the state’s population.
“Reopening the state and relaxing social-distancing measures now is irresponsible and could even be deadly,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms wrote in a Thursday op-ed in The Atlantic criticizing Kemp’s decision. “Our hospitals may not be stretched to capacity, but that does not mean we should work to fill the vacant beds. I strongly believe that our health-care system is not overwhelmed because we have been socially distancing.”
And while President Donald Trump has encouraged states to return to business as usual as soon as possible, even he criticized Georgia’s rapid re-opening and actively distanced himself from Kemp.
“I (or [Vice President Mike Pence]) never gave Governor Brian Kemp an OK on those few businesses outside of the Guidelines. FAKE NEWS! Spas, beauty salons, tattoo parlors, & barber shops should take a little slower path, but I told the Governor to do what is right for the great people of Georgia (& USA)!,” Trump tweeted on April 24.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a staunch ally of Trump who represents the neighboring state of South Carolina, also wrote in an April 22 tweet that he worried, “our friends and neighbors in Georgia are going too fast too soon.”