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Georgia Allows Businesses To Reopen Despite Concerns

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The state of Georgia has started to reopen beginning today with hair salons, nail salons, barbershops, tattoo studios and gyms, even as confirmed cases of the coronavirus and deaths from COVID-19 keep rising. In Georgia, nearly 900 people have died, and there are more than 22,000 positive tests.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

At the same time, at least a million Georgia residents are unemployed. So are Georgians ready to stop sheltering in place? Well, one answer comes from The Gentry. That's a barbershop in Macon, Ga. It does not have a single appointment open today. Here's owner Brian Ochoa.

BRIAN OCHOA: We're slammed. We're completely booked solid.

CHANG: Georgia is one of the first states to ease restrictions for businesses that were closed. But even as some stores and shops do open, health experts and local leaders are concerned that it's still too early to do so.

KELLY: From member station WABE in Atlanta, we have Emma Hurt here to tell us more about what is happening in the state today.

Hey, Emma.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: So this has been hugely controversial. The plan to begin reopening has drawn criticism all the way up to President Trump. But it sounds like at least some Georgians are taking the governor up on his decision.

HURT: Yeah, so Gov. Brian Kemp says that this is about giving people a choice, and really different choices are being made across the state. For one, Ken Adams has owned a barbershop in Blue Ridge in North Georgia mountains for 30 years. You can hear in this tape, he was literally cutting someone's hair as we spoke on the phone. Says he's had about a dozen customers today, and the decision to open wasn't hard because he needed to get back to work.

KEN ADAMS: Oh, it was easy for me. I mean, you know, I'm broke. So, you know, it's going to do whatever it's going to do to whoever it's going to do it to. It just depends on your immune system and what kind of ailments you got.

HURT: He's not requiring masks. He's wiping down chairs between customers and limiting three people in the shop at once but not wearing a mask himself.

KELLY: Not wearing a mask himself. Is that true of a lot of places that you were checking on today?

HURT: Honestly, Mary Louise, there are as many different situations, I'm finding today, as there are businesses in Georgia. I mean, everyone's making their own decisions. So at a tattoo parlor in Columbus, for example, in west Georgia, the owner Matthew Wertjes says that he's installing filters on his HVAC system to kill germs. He's requiring masks because of everyone in the shop, refusing walk-ins. Says he's nervous and excited, but he's got a handful of appointments.

MATTHEW WERTJES: We'll see what happens. If I don't like what I see, then we're going to just close the doors and reevaluate this whole thing.

KELLY: So it sounds like businesses are deciding for themselves what to do, what they - what level of risk they are comfortable with or not. But meanwhile, plenty of businesses will remain closed. Is that right?

HURT: That is right. I mean, restaurants are up next to be allowed to reopen on Monday for dine-in service, and it's been tough in Atlanta to find many that are just - that are choosing to do so. People are still scared. I talked to a yoga studio owner in Atlanta, Neda Honavar. She says it was an easy decision to stay closed for her, despite the financial toll this is taking.

NEDA HONAVAR: Yeah, it's really scary to think about losing my business, but it's also really scary to think about losing people.

HURT: Honavar says she's worried that the reopening will have an effect on people's access to unemployment benefits, a question we got a lot of. And it turns out, if your employer reopens but you don't want to come back to work, the state labor department says fear of contracting the virus doesn't count as a reason to qualify for unemployment, but there are other related reasons, like not having child care or living with someone who's at high risk.

KELLY: Wow. I know Neda Honavar. I'll just note, her big sister is one of my oldest friends from growing up in Atlanta, just underscoring...

HURT: Oh, wow.

KELLY: ...these are real people making decisions that are - that may have life-or-death consequences. Let me ask you, Emma, what the role from - of mayors and local officials is here because this Georgia state order supersedes local restrictions. Is that right?

HURT: Yeah. And Gov. Kemp has repeatedly said that government's not going to be the solution here, that it's going to be up to individuals, and that's really the tone that many mayors and Democratic political leaders, frankly, are leaning into - urging people to take responsibility and stay home. People are worried that things are just moving too fast. And at this point, roughly 1% of the Georgia population has been tested. So the concern is we don't even know how widespread the infection is.

KELLY: That is Emma Hurt of member station WABE in Atlanta.

Thanks for your reporting today.

HURT: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.