ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's governor announced plans Monday to restart the state's economy before the end of the week, saying many businesses that closed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus could reopen as early as Friday.
The governor in neighboring Tennessee planned to let businesses in most of his state begin reopening as soon as next week.
Georgia's timetable, one of the most aggressive in the nation, would allow gyms, hair salons, bowling alleys and tattoo parlors to reopen as long as owners follow strict social-distancing and hygiene requirements. By Monday, movie theaters may resume selling tickets, and restaurants limited to takeout orders could return to limited dine-in service.
Such a swift reopening runs counter to the advice of many experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top authority on infectious diseases, who warned again Monday that resuming business too soon risked a fresh spike in infections.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp said it was important to allow businesses that had been shut down a chance to get some revenue flowing.
“I think this is the right approach at the right time,” Kemp said. “We’re not just throwing the keys back to these business owners. We’re talking about people the government shut down their business.”
Bars, nightclubs and live performance venues will remain closed.
Kemp’s action comes a month after he closed many businesses and not quite three weeks after he issued a shelter-at-home order that will remain in place until April 30. Kemp said elderly and medically fragile people should continue to stay at home until May 13.
The governor said a decline in emergency room visits by people with flu-like symptoms indicates that infections are coming down.
“The bottom line is, social distancing worked,” state Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey told a handful of reporters after Kemp's news conference.
Kemp acknowledged Georgia has lagged when it comes to COVID-19 testing and announced new initiatives to ramp it up.
He said the state medical college in Augusta will begin producing thousands of swabs each day for collecting test samples. The school will also offer an online app statewide that would let people with symptoms consult with a clinician and be referred for testing if warranted. Meanwhile, the Georgia National Guard will begin deploying teams to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities with equipment for administering 1,500 tests per day.
“Testing defines the battlefield and informs our long-term strategy,” Kemp said. “These efforts significantly increase our capacity as we take measured steps forward.”
In downtown Savannah, Patrick Godley’s restaurant 17 Hundred 90 has been closed for a month. His fine-dining menu doesn’t suit itself to takeout, so he just locked the doors. His cooks, waiters and dishwashers were furloughed, allowing them to draw partial unemployment benefits.
Godley said Monday he fears it’s too early to reopen for business and that doing so might trigger a new spike in infections.
“I’d rather stay closed an extra week and wipe this thing out than to open prematurely, have a second wave and have to shut down again,” he said.
Even if he did reopen next week, Godley said, he doubts he would have many customers.
“I don’t think people are going to be going out and celebrating a lot right now.”
Ian Jones, who owns four restaurants in the Atlanta area with about 100 employees, said he’s concerned that Kemp’s order could force people to reopen before they are ready because lenders and landlords might stop being forgiving. He also fears that employees would have to give up unemployment benefits to return to work, but might be thrown out of work again if infection rates grow.
“It just seems like it’s too early,” Jones said.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, also a Republican, said his mandatory safer-at-home order will expire April 30, which will pave the way for 89 of the state’s 95 counties to begin opening businesses.
Lee’s announcement did not apply to counties with the largest cities — areas that are not overseen by Tennessee’s Department of Health but have their own public health districts.
Lee said officials were "working directly with our major metropolitan areas to ensure they are in a position to reopen as soon and safely as possible.”
Some businesses will be allowed to reopen as early as April 27, but it was unclear exactly which ones will be granted such clearance. Lee told reporters that details would be finalized later this week.
Georgia’s death toll from COVID-19 rose above 700 as new numbers were reported Monday. Infections have been confirmed in nearly 19,000 people.
Kemp's announcement followed calls from President Donald Trump and protesters to lift restrictions.
Automaker Kia planned to reopen its manufacturing plant in west Georgia next Monday after a nearly monthlong shutdown that the company attributed to supply chain shortages and concerns about the virus, plant spokesman Rick Douglas said.
On Monday, about 40 workers at the plant began making face shields to help offset a shortage of protective gear for medical workers and first responders. The company said those workers are having their temperatures scanned and are being provided with masks and gloves. Their workstations are arranged to enforce social distancing. Douglas said similar safeguards will be used when the rest of Kia’s Georgia employees return to work next week.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause severe illness such as pneumonia or death.
Associated Press Writer Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this report.