Multiple states across the country have seen protests as stay-at-home orders meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus continue.
ATLANTA – Plans to reopen some Georgia businesses this week have triggered a backlash from local mayors who say there were blindsided – and a mix of excitement and anxiety from businesses suffering financial losses during the coronavirus outbreak.
Amid a series of protests across the nation demanding immediate action to reopen states, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced plans Monday to allow gyms, bowling alleys, hair and nail salons, massage therapists and more to reopen their doors as early as Friday if they adhere to social distancing measures and hygiene requirements.
Bars, nightclubs and entertainment operations will remain closed, but restaurants and theaters will be able to reopen April 27.
Several mayors in Georgia said they weren’t given any notice of the announcement and questioned the governor’s decision.
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Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told CNN on Monday she had not spoken with Kemp before learning of his decision to reopen businesses. Bottoms said she was concerned about the move as Georgia’s case count continues to go up and asymptomatic people or people with mild symptoms are not being tested.
Georgia has not seen a 14-day downward trajectory in the rate of new cases, according to data from the state’s department of health. Nearly 90,000 tests have been conducted in the state of more than 10 million people. Of the total tests, about 23% were positive, with nearly 20,000 confirmed cases and 800 deaths as of Tuesday.
“We really are at a loss and I am concerned as a mother and the mayor of our capital city,” Bottoms said. “I am perplexed that we have opened up in this way … As I look at the data and as I talk with our public health officials, I don’t see that it’s based on anything that’s logical.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., echoed concerns about the decision on Twitter Tuesday. “I worry that our friends and neighbors in Georgia are going too fast too soon,” he said in a post.
Kemp has been widely criticized for his handling of the outbreak. He was among the last governors to sign a statewide stay-at-home order, which he did earlier this month. The order loosened some restrictions that cities and counties had put in place to fight the spread of the coronavirus, angering some local officials.
Kemp drew further scrutiny last week when he admitted that he had only just learned that asymptomatic individuals can still spread coronavirus – even though health experts had warned about the possibility as early as January.
Mayors say reopening is ‘premature’
Many mayors are recommending that business owners take every precaution when making their own decisions about reopening.
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said he believes the reopening of the state’s businesses was “premature,” and that it “places Savannahians at risk.”
“The politics in that are clear,” Johnson said. “The governor has not communicated with the city of Savannah since this began, so he obviously doesn’t have a clue about the situation here on the ground in Savannah, our efforts or what we’re trying to do. Now, we’re prevented from taking any additional action.”
Tybee Island Mayor Shirley Sessions said the City Council was planning a retreat next week to discuss the process of reopening the city, but Kemp’s plans jump-started that process.
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“I think it’s putting a lot of pressure and stress on the businesses,” Sessions said. “Local government doesn’t have a say at this point. It really doesn’t matter what I think or what our council thinks. Right now it’s really up to the businesses and the public to decide if they’re ready or not.”
Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis Jr. told CNN on Monday night that Georgia hasn’t implemented the “three Ts” – testing, contact tracing and treatment – at a level sufficient to reopen gyms, salons, restaurants and churches, he said. “Without a series of educational efforts to those industries it’s going to be extremely difficult for us to continue to flatten the curve,” Davis said.
‘We’re ready’: Some businesses eager to open
But some Georgia business owners said they were eager to reopen their doors. As of April 11, more than 16% of Georgia’s workforce had filed for unemployment in the last four weeks, according to a USA TODAY compilation of Department of Labor data.
Shannon Stafford, owner of New Era Hair Studio in Savannah, said she plans to reopen her salon Friday because it would be safer for her stylists and clients.
“You have so many people in the beauty industry who have never stopped servicing clients – either they’re traveling to someone’s home or they’re coming to their homes – and that makes them more vulnerable,” Stafford said. “Having the salons reopened is going to give you a more controlled environment. You can sanitize, space out your clients.”
Stafford said that being closed for a month hasn’t had a big affect on her finances but that she was growing concerned about how long it was sustainable.
“I have five children that are depending on me. So it’s a very scary situation that you’re in,” Stafford said.
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In Macon, BodyPlex Fitness Adventure co-owner Mike Martino told WMAZ that he was “a little surprised, but excited” about reopening. “I mean, we’re going to be very precautious,” he said.
Martino said Bodyplex, a health-club chain with locations across the state, had been sanitizing fitness centers and wiping down equipment to ensure safety.
Salem Makhlouf, who owns four metro Atlanta restaurants, told WSB-TV last week that he’s optimistic that the president laid out a plan to reopen the country.
“Everybody is excited. My chef, my wife, my employees. We’re ready,” he told WSB-TV.
‘It’s simply not safe’: Others staying shut
But some Georgia business owners say they don’t want to put employees and customers at risk.
Bill Mabry, owner of Mr. Everything Café in downtown Decatur – an Atlanta suburb located just a few miles from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters – said he will not resume in-person dining on Monday. Mabry said his restaurant will only offer delivery and takeout until there is a vaccine for COVID-19 and adequate testing.
“We don’t think that’s wise,” Mabry said of in-person dining. “If there’s not a vaccine, and there are not enough tests, anybody who comes in the restaurant may have the COVID-19 virus. There are too many instances you can’t control.”
Autumn Weaver, manager of Home.made, a restaurant in Athens, said despite having to lay off several staff members, she refuses to resume dine-in service next week. Weaver said it would be nearly impossible for waiters to serve customers while practicing social distancing.
“Anything that would make a restaurant run in a normal way with servers touching plates and touching utensils . . it’s simply not safe,” said Weaver, who is offering curbside takeout to customers. “It also seems counter to all the advice we have heard and all the actions we have taken (before now).”
David Gonzalez, co-owner of tattoo shop Atlanta Tattoo League, said he didn’t plan to re-open on Friday.
“Every shop is worried,” Gonzalez said. “Most of them are not trying to open. They’re still concerned. They’re trying to wait at least another month.”
Most local tattoo shops have four or five artists inside the shop, with one or two customers each on a given day, Gonzalez said. “There would be, throughout the day, multiple people (inside the store). That’s why most shops are not wanting to open,” he said.
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Gonzalez co-owns the tattoo shop with his wife. He said the closure has been difficult financially for them and their 9-year-old son. Gonzalez said he’s been exploring new ways to make money, including taking painting commissions. Some tattoo artists might start working from home or making house calls, he said.
The Painted Duck bowling alley in downtown Atlanta said in a statement that it would not be reopening Friday.
“Small businesses, including restaurants, bars and entertainment venues, are currently fighting for their lives due to the nationwide forced closures. On one hand, we need to be open to be able to survive, but we only have one opportunity to get it right, there are no second chances,” said Justin Amick, President & CEO of Painted Hospitality.
Georgia is spending $21.5 million to build a temporary hospital to house COVID-19 patients that Gov. Brian Kemp toured this week. (April 17)
Religious groups have also pushed back against the governor’s provision allowing houses of worship to gather for in-person services.
Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, Presiding Prelate of the Sixth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, issued a directive to more than 520 churches Tuesday prohibiting gatherings for services on Sunday.
“This decision by the governor puts economic interest above the safety and well-being of the citizens of Georgia. There is no data which justifies or gives credibility to the governor’s decision,” Jackson said in a statement. “This is unacceptable, and citizens should not be put at this risk.”
The North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church said in a statement Monday that it was advising churches not to gather through May 13, “as we do our best to do no harm.”
Researchers have expressed concern about lifting restrictions at this time.
“I wouldn’t be considering reopening society until I had testing in place. Period,” Caroline Buckee, an associate professor of epidemiology, said in a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health forum Tuesday.
Contributing: Will Peebles, Savannah Morning News; Susan McCord and Kim Luciani, The Augusta Chronicle
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