GEORGIA, USA — Undeterred by a barrage of criticism, Georgia is moving ahead with its plan to reopen some nonessential businesses despite an increase in coronavirus deaths statewide.
This week, he became one of the nation's first governors to ease those restrictions after he allowed businesses such as gyms, barber shops, hair salons, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys to reopen Friday.
His decision has pit him against mayors from several cities, including Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called his announcement perplexing for a state battling a virus that's killed nearly 900 residents and sickened about 22,000 others. Nationwide, the death toll is approaching 50,000, according to the Johns Hopkins University.
"When I look at the data, I see our (state Covid-19) numbers are going up," Bottoms said. " ... I have searched my head and my heart on this and I am at a loss as to what the governor is basing this decision on."
Other southern states are following his cue
Neighboring states are also taking slower steps to reopen. In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster announced some stores can reopen at 20% capacity along with beaches. Mayor Stephen Benjamin of Columbia accused him of using "arbitrary dates" instead of data to decide.
"We need more testing. We need more data, and then we can decide how we go back into business," Benjamin said.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said the governor's reopening plan was "a measured response" that took safety and social distancing into account. "It's not like he opened the barn door and everything flies out," Tecklenburg said
A coronavirus model routinely cited by the White House warns that no state is ready to ease restrictions this month. South Carolina and Georgia should not open until June 8 and June 22, respectively, according to the model by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
The reopening dates are based on an assumption that states will have aggressive testing, contact tracing, isolation and limits on the size of gatherings to prevent more infections.
Georgia is now offering drive-thru testing and has asked state health officials to test all symptomatic people, the governor said.
Business owner has no plans to reopen
The move to reopen has left some business owners conflicted. Sabrina Watkins said since the governor's announcement, at least 15 clients have called her to find out if they can come in and get their hair styled. But she has no plans to return to work any time soon.
"People were calling asking, 'are you opening, can we set up an appointment for Friday?'" said Watkins, who works as a hair stylist and makeup artist in the Atlanta suburb of College Park.
"I said no, absolutely not. Get your hair done for what? There's a pandemic, people are dying. As much as I love the business, now is not the time, regardless of who says it is."
Before the coronavirus outbreak, Watkins saw about 10 clients daily at the work space she shares with five stylists -- an arrangement she said raises the risk of exposure. Some of her clients are elderly and more vulnerable to infections, she said.
"None of us are being tested, how do we track who's carrying it, who is giving it to whom? I don't want to take part in spreading the disease and risking their lives," she said. "Staying home gives us a greater chance until the numbers go down as far as infections and the death toll."
Businesses that reopen must follow social distancing guidelines, maintain sanitation and screen their employees for symptoms such as fever and respiratory illness, Kemp said. Theaters and dine-in restaurants will be allowed to reopen Monday -- even with a statewide shelter-in-place order that expires at the end of the month.
Bottoms said maintaining social distances in some of the reopened businesses won't be easy.
"How do you get a haircut and stay a safe distance from someone cutting your bangs?" she asked.
Kay Kendrick, chair of the Georgia State Board of Cosmetology and Barbers, applauded the governor's move and said they have safety measures in place for the reopening.
""We have 95,000 licensees under our board, most of whom are independent contractors that have no other source of income," Kendrick said.
Health experts have criticized the move to reopen the state, saying it's too soon and risks setting off another wave of infections. President Donald Trump at first applauded Kemp for his aggressive plan to restart the economy, a source told CNN, then publicly bashed him during press briefings.
"I told the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, that I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities," Trump said. "But, at the same time, he must do what he thinks is right."
Georgia is home to one of the nation's largest cities and the location of Hartsfield--Jackson Atlanta International, the world's busiest airport.
Just last month, a coronavirus outbreak exploded in a community in rural Albany after residents attended two funerals in late February and early March. The virus turned into a full-blown health crisis for the city of 75,000, highlighting that smaller, more rural areas are as vulnerable as larger, urban cities. At 109 deaths so far, Dougherty County, where Albany is located, has more fatalities than any other county in Georgia.
The state's decision to reopen has set off a wave of controversy nationwide. Bottoms said she received a racist text message after she voiced her reservations, but that won't stop her from speaking the truth.