Flying Blind Without Proper Testing, GOP Governors Reopen Businesses in Three Southern States

Jacksonville Beach, Florida, on April 19, two days after Governor DeSantis announced beaches would reopen. Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

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On Monday in Georgia, where caseloads are still climbing daily and over 700 people have died from the coronavirus, Governor Brian Kemp announced that businesses including gyms, barbers, and hair stylists will be able to open on Friday. Theaters and restaurants will be allowed to open on Monday, if owners enforce proper social distancing, though bars and clubs will remain closed. As part of Kemp’s “small step forward,” religious services will also be allowed to hold in-person services.

Though just last week, Kemp claimed that his priority was to increase the state’s testing capacity so that his administration could make a more informed decision on when to reopen, he revised that plan, citing the economic toll of COVID-19 on the state’s businesses: “I know the impact of this pandemic on hardworking Georgians in every zip code and every community.” Kemp also cited White House leadership, reiterating “the president’s desire to reopen the economy and get Americans back to work.”

Trump’s leadership, however, has amounted to a message that governors should “call your own shots” as the federal government fails to deliver on adequate levels of testing. And in that absence of information, some Republican governors have decided to push forward. Though the primary federal model of the virus’s impact on individual states asserts that Georgia shouldn’t relax social distancing until after June 15 — and that dozens of Peach Staters will die every day in the coming week — Kemp’s decision risks a second wave of outbreaks before the first one ends. He is, however, following the advice of conservative pundits who have suggested that some Americans should bear additional hardships: While the statewide shelter-in-place order ends on April 30, seniors and the “medically fragile” are encouraged to shelter-at-home until May 13.

As public health officials continue to stress the importance of social distancing at this stage in the pandemic, the governors of Tennessee and South Carolina both stated they would loosen restrictions shortly after Kemp’s announcement. Governor Henry McMaster announced that South Carolina department and retail stores, as well as flea markets, can open on Tuesday if they adhere to social distancing minimums: Businesses must limit customers to five per 1,000 square feet of retail space, or 20 percent occupancy. McMaster also allowed for beaches, public piers, and wharfs to reopen, if local officials determine it is safe in their area. In Tennessee, Governor Bill Lee announced that the “vast majority” of businesses could reopen on May 1, a week from Friday.

While the maintenance of social distancing within retail stores and restaurants will be an important, if simple, tool in returning local economies to their pre-pandemic state, the decisions made by this southern trifecta come as we are still learning about the nature of the coronavirus — including the dangers of spreading COVID-19 in air-conditioned rooms, which are ubiquitous in southern states in May. But even prior to the decisions to reopen, governors like Brian Kemp and Florida’s Ron DeSantis — who announced the opening of some beaches last Friday — have already shown a willingness to overlook life-saving information about the virus. On April 2, well into the national outbreak, Governor Kemp said that he only just found out that COVID-19 could be transmitted by asymptomatic carriers, calling his newfound knowledge a “game-changer.” DeSantis, on the day he announced beaches were back, still did not know how to wear a mask:

Flying Blind, GOP Governors Reopen Businesses in the South