Promise and Peril in Georgia

Georgia’s reopening plan has been subject to blistering, bipartisan criticism. From President Trump’s uttering Governor Brian Kemp’s name in a very displeased tone during the daily press conference, to the mayor of Atlanta saying lives may be ‘sacrifice[d] for the sake of the economy,’ the reopening of Georgia and the manner it’s being done is quite controversial.

Let us first look at the COVID-19 situation and then how the state reacted to it in the first place. The Wuhan coronavirus was first detected in Georgia on March 2, and then cases and deaths were detected in surrounding Metro Atlanta counties, near the CDC, with a hotspot in the southern city of Albany, after a grieving, large, tight-knit family was exposed to the disease during a highly emotional funeral. Nursing homes were also hard-hit.

Governor Kemp first declared a public health emergency on March 14 after the first death on March 12, then individual cities and counties, mostly in Metro Atlanta, began to issue stay-at-home orders as cases spread. Governor Kemp ordered the schools to be shut two days later.

In his statewide stay-in-place Executive Order of April 2,  he made uniform restrictions for the state, specifically encouraging outdoor activity -- no restrictions on ‘outdoor exercise activities.’ Georgia’s beaches had been closed down by the local communities -- the statewide order reopened the beaches for social distanced activity. He also placed no restrictions on religious services per se but prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people. Essential businesses were expected to keep working, with appropriate safeguards. Controversially, he also stated that he had just learned that asymptomatic infected people could spread the virus.

Now his Executive Order of April 23 is reopening the state. Specifically, vulnerable groups -- the elderly, the obese, and immune-compromised -- are all ordered to shelter in place.

On Monday, April 27, restaurants will be allowed to reopen, but must follow significant social distancing and sanitation procedures, such as disposable menus, sanitizing between customers and no waiting areas.

Fitness centers can reopen, but with restrictions -- only every other machine in use, no group classes, no basketball, no child-care, locker rooms discouraged. Patrons must also be screened at entry.

Bowling Lanes can reopen using every other or every third lane, with no more than six per group.

Movie theaters will reopen with patrons six feet apart.

Most controversially, Nail Salons/Tattoo Parlors can open, by appointment only, with patrons waiting in cars outside. They must also use only half the normal staff. Everything to be sanitized between customers and as much disposable in use as possible. 

Bars, nightclubs, swimming pools, and amusement parks will stay closed.

The governor has received quite a lot of pushback. In particular criticism has focused on the idea of reopening nail and hair salons, as well as bowling centers. The criticism appears to derive from several sources:

  1. The CNN effect: CNN was founded in Atlanta, and thus Georgia’s Republican governor is thus an easy target of resistance. The average person may never hear of similar measures taken in Arkansas, Wyoming, or elsewhere beyond the coast.
  2. Georgia’s political divisions: Georgia has been divided for decades between Atlanta and the rest of the state, with Metro Atlanta increasingly purple, with many Democrat local leaders. Governor Kemp has seemed very connected to the concerns of business owners and to rural Georgia outside of Metro Atlanta. The reluctance to close businesses and the concern for the rural areas explains why Georgia was among the last states in the region with a serious coronavirus outbreak to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order. One of the concerns was that fleeing Atlantans might spread the virus into communities near their vacation homes. Another division is racial: in particular, there are different realities for black and white customers of hair salons and it is alleged that reopening these businesses can put black women at higher risk. As black women are an important Democratic voting bloc, this has led to calls to ‘defy the governor and stay home’.
  3. Governor Kemp’s approach to politics and governing: Governor Kemp does not give inspirational speeches and does not seem to be a natural salesman or highly political. Instead, the governor seems to be more involved in managing the crisis. There have been few press conferences. So far as I know, Georgia has not asked for outside help to handle the disease. Instead, Georgia’s own extensive resources have been deployed. A shortage of health care workers in hard-hit Albany was resolved by another Georgia staffing company sending its healthcare workers to assist. Teams of National Guardsmen are sanitizing nursing care facilities around the state. The resources of the Medical College in Augusta, and at the University of Georgia, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and medical research behemoth Emory University have all been used to work the problem. Georgia is not stretched beyond its resources.
  4. Governor Kemp’s trust in his fellow citizens and in business owners: Governor Kemp’s philosophy is to avoid top-down directions as much as possible. Governor Kemp and his critics basically disagree on this observation of human nature: that there is ‘no shortage of stupid.’ In other words, his critics have taken counsel of their fears -- and believe that people will not follow the rules, that it will not be possible to safely cut hair or do nails -- and that people will die as a result. It is true, that there are many foolish people in the world. But business owners tend to be a cut above the average. Governor Kemp is clearly relying on the fact that no business can afford to kill its customers, and that business owners understand their grave responsibility to keep their customers safe.

I would argue that Governor Kemp understands that many local leaders do not have that same trust in their business owners, and that if he deferred to each locality that the state would be a patchwork of open and closed businesses, depending less upon data, and more upon political philosophy. As it is, these decisions will be made by the people, and not by the government. When customers decide that it is safe to patronize businesses, then business will resume. In Georgia, there will be no protests to open up the state.

As to the downside, Governor Kemp has issued his plan without getting or presenting buy-in from local leadership and business groups. Thus, this plan is entirely results-oriented. No political cover was sought or given -- the buck for any negative consequences will fall on the governor's shoulders. Knowing political realities, neither the media nor political opponents will give credit for any positive results.

It took confidence and courage to withstand the critics’ pressure. Whether that was wise will only be known over time.

If you experience technical problems, please write to