Gyms, salons & restaurants in Southeast Georgia county hit hardest by virus to soon reopen

Ware County has highest number of per capita deaths of any county in Southeast Georgia, statistics show

ATLANTA – Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp says some businesses that closed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the state could reopen as early as Friday.

That includes businesses in Ware County, the county that has the highest number of per capita deaths of any Southeast Georgia county, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health.

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. Elective medical procedures would also resume. By Monday, movie theaters may resume selling tickets, and restaurants limited to takeout orders could return to limited dine-in service.

Scott Sweat was busy on Tuesday cleaning his gym in Waycross, Sweat Fitness. He said Friday will mark 30 days since anyone has worked out in his facility.

Sweat said he will be welcoming his 1,200 clients back by rolling out a three-step process.

“We are not going to open up our child care, probably, for the first seven to 14 days. We are going to limit child care and fitness classes, which will probably keep the rush of people coming in at one time," Sweat said.

The owner of the gym said social distancing will still be a priority.

“We’re going to space the equipment out a little bit. Cardio, we are going to try to make sure to put a piece of tape or something between every piece of cardio equipment to give people that ease of not being so close together,” he said. "Number three, we also have sanitary wipes all throughout the gym. We are going to ask them to wipe down the equipment before and after.”

A few miles away, Jamie McQuaig is preparing to reopen her business, Salon Cheveux, by appointment only. No double booking will be allowed.

“When someone comes up early, they will have to wait in their car to come in," McQuaig said. “We will communicate by text and phone so we will not have a packed salon. Every stylist and customers, it will be mandatory to wear masks.”

Across town, Josh Lancaster, the general manager at Hog N Bones, is waiting on official orders from Kemp on how to reopen his dining room on Monday.

“We are very excited. We’re tired of running just drive-thru. We are excited to see people’s faces, and we’re ready to go back to normal," Lancaster said.

He said he suspects they will stagger seating in the dining-room, maintaining safe social distancing among guests.

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. But he emphasized businesses would still be operating under restrictions including monitoring employee health, enhancing sanitation and separating workers.

“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 (who had) the government shut down their business.”

Bars, live performance venues and amusement parks will remain closed.

The governor's actions line up with the phase one of reopening seen in the guidelines issued last week by President Donald Trump’s administration. Those guidelines call for 14 days of declining COVID-19 cases. Georgia on Monday had recorded six days of declining new infections according to a rolling seven-day average of state Department of Public Health figures. If that continued through Friday, it would be 10 days. Kemp said he delayed the reopening of sit-down service in restaurants and theaters until next Monday in part because, “I also think that gives us more time to continue to flatten the curve.”

But new infections and deaths are likely to continue to mount, even if at a reduced rate. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation suggests Georgia shouldn't loosen social distancing until June 15. Kemp argues he's still mandating social distancing even as businesses reopen.

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. Kemp's shelter-at-home order followed days of pressure from local officials, and even after he issued the order, there were clashes over keeping open beaches, lakes and state parks. Kemp says keeping those outdoor spaces open has been a success.


Associated Press Writer Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this report.

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