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Using White House Guidelines, Georgia Plans To Reopen Some Businesses

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In the state of Georgia, the coronavirus lockdown may be ending, and some are wondering if this is too soon. Republican Governor Brian Kemp has released plans to start reopening certain businesses. Later this week, that will include bowling alleys, gyms, hair and nail salons. On Monday, they'll add in dine-in restaurants and theaters. Here's Governor Kemp.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN KEMP: I hear the concerns of those that I'm honored to serve. I see the terrible impact of COVID-19 on public health as well as the pocketbook.

GREENE: Now, all of these businesses, we should say, are still subject to social distancing and sanitation protocols. Emma Hurt with member station WABE in Atlanta joins us this morning. Emma, good morning.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So Governor Kemp was, I believe, one of the last governors to enforce a shutdown - it was just about three weeks ago - now one of the first to try and start reopening. What's his argument here?

HURT: So the governor's saying his decision is based on the guidelines the White House released last week on when states can consider reopening their economies. By the end of this week, Georgia's projected to hit two full weeks of declining positive cases and declining emergency room visits for coronavirus-like symptoms. Georgia has been able to add hospital beds.

And Kemp says he feels confident the state's getting better at testing, which has been a problem, and expanding contact tracing infrastructure. He says we have enough masks and equipment for health care workers to handle another surge from here, which he said he understood very well might happen.

GREENE: OK, so not denying that another surge could come, which is obviously a risk. So essentially, what is - is his argument that the state's economy has just been too battered and he needs to do something despite the health risks?

HURT: Yeah, I think it goes up to that bite y'all played at the beginning about the pocketbooks. There's a lot of businesses in the state, just like across the country, suffering and fighting to stay afloat, many of whom haven't gotten federal small-business loans, and this reopening would give them the chance to make some money.

Of course, just because the governor says they can doesn't mean they will. At WABE, we've started compiling an already long list of Atlanta restaurants that will stay closed or takeout only. Kemp says the private sector will have to convince people it's safe to come back. I talked to one barber shop owner in Atlanta - T.J. Johnson. He says none of his barbers or their clients will feel safe to come in.

T J JOHNSON: Right now, you know, it's like, you don't even know - because we are in very close proximity with the clients. We are in their faces. Even with masks, there's no way for us even to test them.

HURT: He's planning to open his doors on Friday just in case but is really not convinced there'll be any business. And he says he himself doesn't feel safe cutting people's hair right now nor does he have access to the things the state is suggesting he use to stay safe, like thermometers and masks.

GREENE: Wow. So you have a business owner saying, OK, I'll open, but my customers are scared and I'm scared. So, you know, I have to wonder, like, what are public health officials saying about the risks here, if this goes forward?

HURT: Yeah, so public health experts here and a major hospital system leader I spoke to, for example, are all urging people to take ownership for what they're doing. Keep up the social distancing. Wear a mask. Don't go out if you're feeling unsafe. And urging, at the state level, for an emphasis on testing and contact tracing. Only less than 1% of the Georgia population has been tested so far, and hospitals still can't get what they need.

Politically, many Georgia mayors have quickly responded, calling this reckless and dangerous. Albany has one of the highest per capita COVID rates in the world. In southwest Georgia, the mayor down there has this advice for his community - Bo Dorough.

BO DOROUGH: People in their teens and their 20s, they can have the virus and not be symptomatic at all. But they can also infect other people. So please, continue to exercise precautions. Even though it might be permissible, if it's not prudent, don't do it.

HURT: And I should say this state order supersedes all local emergency regulations. So the mayors really don't have any power in this instance.

GREENE: All right. Emma Hurt with member station WABE in Atlanta. Thanks so much, Emma.

HURT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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