Georgia governor rolls out aggressive plans to reopen; some can get back to business Friday

ATLANTA -- Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday, April 20 rolled out aggressive plans to reopen the state's economy, saying many businesses shuttered to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus may reopen their doors as early as Friday, April 24.

Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, House Speaker David Ralston and officials with the Department of Public Health, GEMA and the Georgia National Guard discussed the issue at a briefing at the state Capitol Monday.

The current White House criteria to reopen America includes three phases, and Kemp said that the state was "on track to meet the criteria for Phase One” by having adequate testing, hospital capacity and contact tracing of the virus.

Kemp brought up the struggles of contract workers, small businesses and Georgia farmers, saying that he "hears the concerns of those I am honored to serve" and that the state has been seeing

The governor mentioned that one of the major focuses to meet requirements of President's Donald Trump's guidelines would be testing. In order to do so, the state would be partnering with the Georgia Health system to "double down" on testing capacity.

"Testing defines the battlefield and aids our long term strategy," Kemp said, bringing up that the National Guard would be working with GEMA to help with testing thousands of Georgians.

With the latest coronavirus cases, Kemp said the state was a place on the curve that hospitals could resume elective surgeries which were deemed essential.

Given the favorable data, Kemp said that gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, beauty shops and salons, barbershops, body art studios and more would be able to open Friday.

Kemp said the reopening of these businesses "would not be business-as-usual" and would require companies to implement changes to ensure sanitation mandates and social distancing.

The governor also said that movie theaters and restaurants, which were previously banned from in-person dining, would be allowed to reopen on Monday, April 27 with certain restrictions to be announced later this week. That delay would allow Georgia more time to flatten the curve and allow the businesses to prepare to be ready to open.

Bars, nightclubs and amusement parks would remain closed until further notice, the governor said.

"By taking this measured action, we will get Georgians back to work safely, without undermining the progress we all have made in this battle against COVID-19," Kemp said. "Today's announcement is a small step forward and should be treated as such."

While Georgians may be cautious going back to businesses, Kemp said that he hopes the private sector could help convince them.

"If they don’t, we have the ability to act on that,” he said.

The governor also urged religious institutions to continue to help the with social distancing. He asked faith leaders to heed the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and continue drive-in and online services to help with those guidelines.

"I think this is the right approach at the right time," Kemp said. "It's not just throwing the keys back to the owners of the businesses."

Kemp said with the reopenings, he expected cases of the virus to increase, but believed that the state would be able to stay on top of it with increased hospital capacity. State officials would also be on the lookout for any possible hot spots for the virus.

"These are tough decisions, no doubt, and I will have to make more of them," Kemp said, adding that he didn't "give a damn about politics right now" when asked what the political impact of his decisions might be.

Dr. Kathleen E. Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health said that the state's decision to slowly begin to reopen has been driven by data collected of coronavirus cases.

"We definitely have a plateauing and what appears now, a decline, and by the end of the week ,and certainly by the end of shelter in place, that will be a two-week decline that's required to remove the shelter in place, more than a two-week decline," Toomey said, adding the amount of deaths from the coronavirus have also dramatically declined.

She credited that with the health care system being aggressive and expanded testing.

The announcement comes after the Trump administration hosted a call with southeastern governors, including Kemp and the governors of Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi and Florida. Kemp tweeted over the weekend that the call involved discussing approaches to reopening their states’ economies.

Over the weekend, leaders in both Alabama and Florida outlined their plans to reopen the states. South Carolina is also expected to be reopening retail stores and public beach access points Tuesday.

In addition to calls from President Trump, Kemp has heard scattered public calls in Georgia to lift restrictions.

State Rep. David Clark, a Buford Republican, posted statements online Friday saying it’s “time for Georgia and America to reopen for business.”

“If we continue on the path we are headed down, we will totally destroy not only the U.S. economy, but also the world economy,” he said.

Georgia is currently under a shelter-in-place order that Kemp expanded until April 30. The governor said that the shelter-in-place order would remain active until it expires and that people who are medically fragile should expect to shelter in place until May 13.

Heath officials say Georgia’s death toll from COVID-19 has risen above 700 as new numbers were reported Monday at noon. At least 733 deaths statewide have been linked to the virus, the Georgia Department of Public Health said. Infections have been confirmed in nearly 19,000 people.