When Brian Kemp was running for governor of Georgia in 2018, he made a point of boasting that he enjoyed offending people who didn’t share his right-wing views, calling himself a “politically incorrect conservative.” The not-so-subtle message was that he’d thrill supporters by going as far as possible to be a jerk, just like his beloved President Trump:
Well, in the great emergency that he and other governors are facing right now, Kemp is living down to the image he projected back then. With coronavirus cases still rising in his hard-hit state (just under 20,000, with 775 deaths), Kemp has hearkened to Trump’s pleas for the earliest possible easing of countermeasures by taking the national lead on reopening businesses, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported:
The governor’s order will allow gyms, bowling alleys, salons and some other indoor facilities closed under his shelter in place order to resume operations by Friday if they comply with social distancing requirements and meet other safety standards.
And restaurants, which were banned from in-person dining, will be allowed to reopen on April 27 if they meet guidelines his office will release later this week.
Churches will be allowed to resume in-person services as well. And Kemp doesn’t care if the secular-socialist hippie scientists and public-health experts don’t like it:
“I don’t give a damn about politics now,” said Kemp, who said he’s more concerned about Georgians “going broke worried about whether they can feed their children and make the mortgage payment….”
Pilloried by public health experts and others for waiting for weeks before imposing a statewide shelter-in-place order, Kemp is now facing mounting pushback from critics who say he should immediately restart sectors of the economy that languished during the lockdown.
So Kemp’s acting before anybody can get to his right by parading around the state capital with shooting irons and Trump signs demanding an end to the lockdown.
It’s either a huge gamble for Kemp or a blunt decision that jobs and profits matter more than lives. As CNN notes, it flies in the face of what epidemiologists would suggest:
The move, which is even more aggressive than President Donald Trump’s optimistic call for a May 1 reopening, came after a week in which total US pandemic deaths doubled to more than 42,000. There is also no genuine sign that the Peach State’s duel with the virus is anywhere near over. Kemp acted as fellow southern states South Carolina and Tennessee also announced plans to ease some social distancing measures….
Kemp’s decision also appears to fly in the face of evidence from foreign states and territories such as Singapore and Hong Kong, and the city of Harbin in China, which saw coronavirus infections quickly erupt after social distancing restrictions were lifted or when residents returned from abroad.
There’s nothing symbolic about the reopening, either: Kemp made it clear his plans would preempt any local shutdown plans or ordinances. Mayors appeared to have been blindsided by the governor’s action as the New York Times reports:
Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottom, urged residents to ignore Mr. Kemp’s order and continue to stay at home, relying on her bully pulpit as mayor because she said she did not have the authority to supersede the governor’s decision inside city limits….
In an interview with CNN, Mayor Hardie Davis Jr. of Augusta, Georgia’s second-largest city, said that he had been caught off guard by the governor’s decision and questioned the wisdom of it.
He pointed out that gyms, barbershops and salons were “places where we’re all in close proximity to one another,” adding, “Without a series of educational efforts to those industries, it’s going to be extremely difficult for us to continue to flatten the curve.”
And the reaction among public-health experts in and beyond Georgia hasn’t been positive, as Greg Bluestein reports:
Dr. Harry Heiman of Georgia State University’s School of Public Health said he was skeptical that Georgia was ready for a “worst-case scenario” if the disease re-emerges. And Dr. Marc Lipsitch of Harvard University said it’s “almost for certain” Georgia would be hit again by another wave of the disease.
Georgia is far behind the curve in testing capacity, though Kemp is pledging to play catch-up in that arena — perhaps too late.
Kemp’s defenders will likely cite his words conditioning the reopening of businesses on checking off “20 guidelines set out by the governor’s office, including screening workers for symptoms of the disease, improving workplace sanitation, wearing masks and gloves if appropriate, separating workspaces by at least six feet, and teleworking when possible.” That sounds nice, but who, exactly, is going to enforce these conditions among tens of thousands of businesses after the governor has made it clear that getting the economy going is the most important priority?
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis at the peak of the state shutdown found that “the Department of Public Safety had issued just 18 citations from April 3, when the order took effect, through Tuesday [April 14]. The other main state agency enforcing the law, the Department of Natural Resources, reported just one criminal charge.” Local police were generally laying off violators on the grounds of minimizing their own exposure to COVID-19 and because the last thing they want to do is add to the population of dangerously crowded jails.
As someone who has been in Georgia since early March, in and out of quarantine, I can attest that citizens are just now beginning to observe social-distancing norms with any seriousness. An “all-clear” sign from the governor is all many will need to go back to the status quo ante.
Brian Kemp is playing with fire. But in fairness, he never promised Georgians anything but recklessness from the get-go.