Gov. Brian Kemp delivers a video message on Georgia's coronavirus response.
Caption
Gov. Brian Kemp delivers a video message on Georgia's coronavirus response.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to ease restrictions for in-restaurant dining and some business operations in the next week – albeit under strict health and social distancing guidelines – is facing massive backlash from elected leaders and public health experts as too much, too soon.

Georgia’s statewide shelter-in-place order will end April 30, and the public health emergency will end May 13.

As of 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 21, there are more than 20,000 cumulative reported COVID-19 cases in Georgia, and about 19% of those have resulted in hospitalizations. At least 818 people, or 4% of those with confirmed cases, have died. More than 88,000 tests have been performed.

Here is the latest coronavirus news in Georgia for Tuesday, April 21, 2020.

Kemp lifts some restrictions, says Georgia will gradually reopen economy

The big news of the moment is the governor’s Monday order easing some restrictions on businesses and operations across the state ahead of the shelter-in-place order being lifted.

Kemp’s order does a number of things, including:

  • allowing elective medical procedures to resume
  • allowing gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, barbershops, hair and nail salons and some other previously-shuttered businesses to open starting Friday April 24 under “minimum basic operations"
  • defines “minimum basic operations”
  • reiterates no business, nonprofit or government shall allow gatherings of 10 or more people unless they can social distance
  • reiterates the long list of “critical infrastructure”
  • formalizes a partnership with Augusta University Health System for statewide screening and testing
  • allows the Department of Public Health to override local health districts if need be
  • prevents city and county governments from enacting rules tougher or more lax than the state

The fact that these businesses can reopen this week does not mean everyone is allowed to flood bowling alleys and fill hair salons.

First, the shelter-in-place order is still in effect.

Second, “minimum basic operations” comes with at least 20 measures businesses must take to ensure safety and mitigate potential exposure to COVID-19.

"Unlike other businesses, these entities have been unable to manage inventory, deal with payroll and take care of administrative items while we shelter in place," Kemp said. "This measure allows them to undertake baseline operations that most other businesses in the state have maintained since I issued the shelter in place order."

Those measures include:

1. Screening and evaluating workers who exhibit signs of illness, such as a fever over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, cough, or shortness of breath;

 

2. Requiring workers who exhibit signs of illness to not report to work or to seek medical attention;

3. Enhancing sanitation of the workplace as appropriate;

4. Requiring hand washing or sanitation by workers at appropriate places within the business location;

5. Providing personal protective equipment as available and appropriate to the function and location of the worker within the business location;

6. Prohibiting gatherings of workers during working hours;

7. Permitting workers to take breaks and meals outside, in their office or personal workspace, or in such other areas where proper social distancing is attainable;

8. Implementing teleworking for all possible workers;

9. Implementing staggered shifts for all possible workers;

10. Holding all meetings and conferences virtually, wherever possible;

11. Delivering intangible services remotely wherever possible;

12. Discouraging workers from using other workers’ phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment;

13. Prohibiting handshaking and other unnecessary person-to-person contact in the workplace;

14. Placing notices that encourage hand hygiene at the entrance to the workplace and in other workplace areas where they are likely to be seen;

15. Suspending the use of Personal Identification Number (“PIN”) pads, PIN entry devices, electronic signature capture, and any other credit card receipt signature requirements to

the extent such suspension is permitted by agreements with credit card companies and credit agencies;

16. Enforcing social distancing of non-cohabitating persons while present on such entity’s leased or owned property;

17.For retailers and service providers, providing for alternative points of sale outside of buildings, including curbside pickup or delivery of products and/ or services if an alternative point of sale is permitted under Georgia law;

18. Increasing physical space between workers and customers;

19. Providing disinfectant and sanitation products for workers to clean their workspace, equipment, and tools;

20.Increasing physical space between workers’ worksites to at least six (6) feet.

Of note, these guidelines are the same that applied to almost every other business in Georgia as part of the April 2 shelter-in-place order, and again, the shelter-in-place order is in effect until April 30.

That order still means Georgians should stay home unless they are engaging in essential services (food, groceries, medical supplies, etc.), work in critical infrastructure, engage in minimum basic operations or performing necessary travel.

"The entities which I'm reopening are not reopening as business as usual, each of these entities will be subject to specific restrictions, including adherence to the minimum basic operations, social distancing and regular sanitation," Kemp said Monday.

While not in the Monday order, Kemp said in-person dining at restaurants could resume Monday, April 27, contingent upon those businesses meeting the minimum basic operations guidelines as well.

What’s still closed?

Bars, live music venues and amusement parks are closed for now, while the state continues to monitor COVID-19 data.

But why are the other restrictions relaxing?

Citing the White House guidelines for states to ease social distancing requirements, Kemp said that Georgia has seen a decline in both COVID-19 cases and emergency room visits for flu-like illness and hospital capacity is expanded. Another element of the task force's recommendation is widespread testing.

In recent weeks, Georgia expanded the definition of who could be tested for COVID-19, deployed members of the Georgia National Guard to aid with testing sites and announced partnerships with both private companies and research universities in the state to expand woefully inadequate testing capacity.

As of Monday, April 20, Georgia has tested just under 85,000 people for COVID-19. For perspective, that’s about 1.2 Mercedes-Benz Stadiums full of Atlanta United soccer fans, slightly more than the enrollment of the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech combined and about a third of the number of people that travel through Atlanta’s airport on a (pre-coronavirus) daily basis.

“Without enough testing, without enough supplies for doctors and nurses, and without listening to medical professionals, the governor’s actions today will make this crisis even worse and put more Georgians at risk,” Democratic Party of Georgia chairwoman and state Sen. Nikema Williams (D-Atlanta) said.

The governor also announced a partnership with Augusta University to promote a free telemedicine screening app that connects symptomatic Georgians and asymptomatic frontline workers with medical professionals that can refer people to be tested for the coronavirus.

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, said the state is actively identifying additional parts of the state that need more testing sites to be set up. Also, her team is working “aggressively” to ramp up contact tracing investigations to find out where and how someone gets infected as well as who else might be at risk of infection to minimize the spread of disease.

Does Georgia’s coronavirus data support reopening?

Kemp’s decision to ease restrictions is an about-face from interviews at the end of last week, where he said future data would help determine what steps he would take next.

On Friday, there were about 17,000 positive COVID-19 cases, 650 reported deaths and around 72,000 tests performed. Monday evening, there were more than 19,000 cases, 775 deaths and just under 85,000 tests.

And the DPH data website has a big caveat underneath each graph that acknowledges a reporting lag between what is actually happening on the ground and what gets sent to the state.

But the state also released a new set of charts showing the “rolling average daily count” of cases and deaths. According to that data, the average number of COVID-19 cases in Georgia has declined since April 14, and average number of deaths has declined since April 7.

That figure is subject to change, as DPH notes illnesses occurring in that time period may not yet be reported. The state has not released the underlying data about what dates they assign cases and deaths to, as well as the detailed census block-level data about where cases and deaths have been reported. 

Also, the White House Coronavirus Task Force guidelines recommend a decline in new cases for 14 days, not to mention the ability to do adequate contact tracing and perform adequate testing, things that are not yet in place in Georgia.

But Kemp argues the state is prepared.

“We’re probably gonna see our cases continue to go up, but we’re a lot better prepared for that now than we were over a month ago,” he said. “We have the hospital bed capacity, we have the community knowledge, we have a lot of things in place now.”

So why is Kemp making this decision now, if we still need more testing and more days of falling cases?

Kemp said Monday that he was considering economic health as well as physical health in making his decisions.

“I don’t give a damn about politics now,” Kemp said. “We’re talking about somebody that has put their whole life into building a business that has people that they love and work with every single day working in many of these places that are at home, going broke worried about whether they can feed their children make the mortgage payment.”

Georgia’s Department of Labor has processed unemployment claims for nearly 10% of the state’s workforce, but the coronavirus has ravaged long-term senior facilities, spread like wildfire through southwest Georgia and claimed the lives of at least 775 people.

"These are tough moments in our state and our nation, I hear the concerns of those that I'm honored to serve," he said. "I see the terrible impact of COVID-19 on public health, as well as the pocketbook."

Macon-Bibb’s curve: a case study

Around the state, health officials are still bracing for the worst of the virus.

 

“We expect our surge to be some time now in mid-May,” Medical Center, Navicent Health, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Patrice Walker told the Macon-Bibb County Board of Health during a teleconference meeting Monday morning.

At 132 infections for every 100,000 residents, Bibb County cracked the top twenty list of Georgia counties for per capita infections. Bibb County, like the rest of the top counties for per capita infections, is also majority African American. 

Due to a number of issues, Bibb County’s reporting of positive test results have been taking up to about 10 days, Dr. Renee Haynes said.

Last week, Kemp’s office raised concerns with local Macon-Bibb County leaders about the testing lag.

Macon-Bibb Commissioner Elaine Lucas has repeatedly questioned whether local factories and industries are doing enough social distancing to curtail spread.

Board members gave voice to fears the community might be a “powder keg” ready to blow.

“I just feel like… we’re not seeing the numbers yet and so it’s just scaring me to death,” said Lucas, who sits on the board of health.

Mayors react

One group not exactly pleased with Kemp’s announcement are some Georgia mayors.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is creating a task force to help guide when the city can reopen, and said she was concerned by the state’s order.

“I still have my voice that I can use, and what I’ll continue to ask Atlantans is to please stay at home,” she said on ABC News. “We don’t know what the governor is looking at, but what I do know is we have nearly 19,000 people who have tested positive as of this evening.”

Tybee Island Mayor Shirley Sessions said even with restrictions eased, people and businesses may not be ready to go back to normal.

“Obviously, it’s gonna be interesting to see how the public responds to going back into public spaces,” she said. “That’s gonna be the bottom line.”