ATLANTA – Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday afternoon rolled out aggressive plans to restart the state’s economy before the end of the week, saying some businesses that closed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus will be allowed to reopen as early as Friday.
Kemp announced that gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios, barbers, cosmetologists, hair designers, nail care artists, estheticians and massage therapists may reopen their doors on Friday, April 24, as long as owners follow strict social distancing and hygiene requirements. By Monday, April 27, movie theaters may resume selling tickets and restaurants limited to takeout orders will be allowed to go back to limited dine-in service.
“In the same way that we carefully closed businesses and urged operations to end to mitigate the virus’s spread, today we’re announcing plans to incrementally and safely reopen sectors of our economy,” Kemp said.
Bars, nightclubs and live performance venues will remain closed.
“We will be evaluating the data and conferring with public health officials to determine the best course of action for those establishments," Kemp said.
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 day Georgia’s public health emergency will expire.
For places of worship, holding in-person services is allowed.
“It must be done in accordance with strict social distancing protocols. I urge faith leaders to continue to help us in this effort to keep their congregation safe by heading the advice of public health officials,” Kemp said. “Of course, online, call-in and drive-in services remain a good option for religious institutions.”
The Republican 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. Georgians can access the app by visiting augustahealth.org, downloading AU Health ExpressCare on a smartphone or calling 706-721-1852.
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.”
At the Kings Bay Village shopping plaza in St. Marys, some of the restaurants that have remained open for pickup orders were itching to allow customers to dine in once again.
“Super excited. We are so ready to go back to people in these booths. Right now, it’s pretty empty and so quiet. It’s such a different thing than what it used to be. I just want to see people eating cheese dip,” said Robert Neilson, a server at Compa’s Mexican Grill and Cantina who recently came back to work after he was laid off for weeks amid the coronavirus outbreak in Georgia. “You’re wondering when you’re going to get any more money because you’re used to making money daily.”
Neilson said he’s optimistic that business will really pick up once the restaurant is able to allow customers to dine in beginning Monday.
“We are in the perfect prime location for people who can finally leave the house and do things to take care of themselves. When they decide they’re a little hungry, we’re right here,” he said.
Across the parking lot, Wee Pub owner Dan Black was also getting ready to resume indoor dining next week after suffering a 95% drop in business and having to let go of some employees.
“We’ve had to adapt our whole business model and learn as we go, but we had to do it quick to stay on our feet,” Black said. “It’s been challenging but also a unique time, and I will always remember it. We’ll come out OK, I think.”
News4Jax was told some of the employees who were let go at Wee Pub found jobs at other places but will be offered their jobs back once things return to normal.
As of Monday evening, at least 775 deaths statewide have been linked to the virus, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Infections have been confirmed in 19,399 people.
Kemp’s announcement followed calls from President Donald Trump and protesters to lift restrictions.
Shane Hazel, a libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate, promoted a small protest Sunday at the Cherokee County courthouse in Canton. In video posted on his Facebook page, Hazel argued that the restrictions were an unconstitutional imposition and that officials had “overstepped.”
State Rep. David Clark, a Buford Republican, posted online Friday that it was “time for Georgia and America to reopen for business.”
“If we continue on the path we are headed down, we will totally destroy not only the U.S. economy, but also the world economy,” he said.
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.
In neighboring 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.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause severe illness such as pneumonia or death.