ATLANTA — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is allowing some shuttered businesses to reopen Friday, drawing criticism from lawmakers, health care leaders and even the president.
Specifically, Kemp is allowing bowling alleys, nail salons, hair stylists, massage therapists and tattoo parlors to reopen.
Kemp has repeatedly defended his decision, saying Georgia business owners need relief. With the State Department of Labor seeing "unfathomable" unemployment filings, some lawmakers and business leaders support Kemp's call.
During a tele-town hall with Sen. Kelly Loeffler Wednesday, Kemp said there comes a point where people become “less concerned with their health and well-being and more concerned with feeding their families and paying their rent.”
“Quite honestly they just start disregarding what the government is telling them,” he said. “I feel like we're getting close to the breaking point in regards to that, which is one reason I've been working so hard to methodically move us into a place where we can do that.”
Although Kemp said during his April 20 announcement Georgia is “on track” to meet White House gating criteria to start opening the state’s economy, the state has not met the requirement of a decline in new COVID-19 cases for 14 days.
Outcry in the Peach State
Georgia House and Senate Democrats have both penned letters to the governor asking him to immediately reverse his decision.
Democratic Party of Georgia Chair Nikema Williams said Kemp’s “half-baked plan will threaten lives across our state.”
“Kemp has failed every step of the way to actually protect Georgians and is now pushing forward with a reckless plan to reopen Georgia without input from medical experts or his own coronavirus task force,” she said. “Right now, we need to listen to the experts — and everyone agrees that Brian Kemp’s plan will only make things worse."
Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, who is a member of Kemp’s coronavirus task force said in a video she posted on her Twitter that she had only found out about Kemp reopening some businesses not through his office but through a text from her friend.
“Like from many of you who are here in the state of Georgia, I am extremely concerned about the governor’s plans and what his decisions will mean for the safety health and lives of Georgia residents — with the possibility of impacting neighbor states and the world since Atlanta is a global hub for traffic.”
Several other members including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms reported they were also not notified. Bottoms said on CNN that she also spoke with Savannah Mayor Van R. Johnson who was not informed of the decision.
“What I know is that when I look at the stat that we receive from our health department each day — our numbers are going up,” she said. “ ...we really are at a loss and I am concerned as a mother and as the mayor of our capital city.”
Local leaders are in a bind, unable to mandate their own rules and restrictions — a specific provision in the governor's order.
In town of Milledgeville, Mayor May Parham-Copelan is concerned about restaurants reopening dining rooms which Kemp says they can begin doing Monday. "While I'm sure our local businesses are hurting financially, let me be clear in saying, I would prefer we stick with the delivery, curbside, and call in methods for a little bit longer," she said.
In the national spotlight — again
Earlier this month Kemp garnered national attention for his comment that he had just learned that asymptotic individuals could spread the virus. Then again for reopening Georgia beaches despite mayors threatening legal action.
On Thursday, the Republican governor was targeted by President Donald Trump himself who said Kemp’s decision to reopen spas, beauty salons, barbershops and tattoo parlors is “too soon.”
"I told the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, that I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities," Trump said at his daily coronavirus briefing. "But at the same time, he must do what he thinks is right. I want him to do what he thinks is right. But I disagree with him on what he's doing."
Republican South Carolina U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said he is worried “that our friends and neighbors in Georgia are going too fast too soon.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said during the Wednesday press conference that he would advise Kemp "as a health official and a physician, not to do that.”
Loeffler — who was appointed by Kemp and has worked hard to curry favor with the president — said on Wednesday before Trump’s comments that she supported Kemp’s measures to reopen the state.
Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue are both members of the president's coronavirus task force on reopening the economy.
“I think we can all have a great deal of confidence in this very thoughtful, data-driven, gradual approach you're taking,” she told Kemp. “This is where leadership matters. I think we can see that your leadership is making a big difference for our state and being very careful about how we approach this with safety at the forefront.”
Kemp has some Georgia lawmakers and business leaders in his corner — arguing that the steps to reopen businesses are small and have strict requirements.
Rep. Clay Pirkle, R-Ashburn, who is also a member of the governor’s economic impact coronavirus task force, said that rules are “still pretty tight.”
“I don't see it as much of an opening,” he told CNHI. “It appears to me that it's incremental in opening the economy back, but it's there's still a lot of rules that you have to go by, in order for these small businesses to be able to earn a living. Because the safety of our citizens is, is very important.”
When asked about Trump’s comments critiquing Kemp, Pirkle added “The last time I checked, Kemp is the governor of Georgia, not Trump.”
Some mayors in Georgia support the governor and are confused by Trump.
Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson, a Republican, said he found the president's comments "odd" after encouraging governor's to make their own calls on when to reopen their states.
"I thought I heard the president loud and clear saying he’s handing it back over to the governors and it’s the governor’s decision," he said. "As Governor Kemp put forward the timeline, we were sticking with the original game plan of the city of Valdosta."
The mayor of Dalton, David Pennington, said there are "no good answers" on when to reopen and he doesn't expect a large wave of patrons in retail stores early on. “We are already in a depression,” he said. “People my age and younger have never experienced that. And there are some people who still aren’t feeling it. But we had 22 million people unemployed in the last month.”